By Phil Hill
In late January I wrote here and here about the US Treasury Department, through the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), blocking access to Coursera courses by students in Syria, Cuba, Iran and Sudan (also see Kris Olds article here and IHE article here). The reason for the decision appears to be that MOOCs were classified as educational services instead of informational materials. At the time, edX was permitted to operate in those countries based on their reliance on getting licenses approved by OFAC, whereas Coursera was relying on a broad interpretation by OFAC. edX president Anant Agarwal even posted on a blog a somewhat congratulatory note:
At edX, we are pleased to announce that no one, in any country, is blocked from taking one of our courses, and we have never blocked students from receiving education on the edX platform because of where they live.
EdX has worked for many months with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets and Control (“OFAC”) and the U.S. State Department to determine how we can assure that no one in any country is blocked from taking an edX course.
Now comes word that edX has been forced by OFAC to block access to several courses for students in Cuba, Iran and Sudan. From The Harvard Crimson late yesterday:
Due to federal regulations, edX plans to block students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan from taking an upcoming online course on aerodynamics and modern aircraft design, according to a blog post written by edX president Anant Agarwal on Monday.
“We are deeply sorry to have to block any student anywhere from taking an edX course,” Agarwal wrote in the post. “This is completely antithetical to the vision and foundational values of edX and all [massive open online courses]. We will continue to work diligently with the U.S. government until every student, from any country in the world, can take any course they choose on edX.”
The course, entitled “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics” and taught by MIT faculty, covers advanced physics and aircraft design. It is scheduled to begin classes on March 5.
edX will now have to block IP addresses from these three countries within the specific courses. It is not clear why Syria is not included in the list.
Coursera, for its part, recently hired Google’s Director of Legal for several product lines as the new General Counsel. It is not clear whether this hire is directly related to their recent problems distributing the courses in Syria, Cuba, Iran and Sudan, but the hire should help them navigate the growing problems with foreign operation.
In my opinion, these rulings (first the broad interpretation for Coursera then the specific license interpretation for edX) indicate that the US Treasury Department intends to regulate MOOCs and other online education ventures based on student location. Just as the for-credit online education world is having to deal with State Authorization rules based on the state residency of students, now open education has to consider the country of residency for students.
At least based on government regulators in the US, anytime and anywhere access to education might become less of a reality.