Coursera blocks Students

Education for Everyone but – Coursera blocks Students from Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan

Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.


We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits. [...]

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in. [emphasis me]

These are the first paragraphs of Coursera’s About page and from this week on I would suggest some changes as students, or Courserians as they are called, from Sudan, Cuba, Syria and Iran are blocked from accessing the MOOC platform.

I first heard about this change in the terms and conditions last Friday on my way back from London. Apparently, professors were informed by the Coursera team who then sent out the following email to their students.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE FOR STUDENTS FROM IRAN, SYRIA, CUBA & SUDAN

students from countries that are currently subject to US export sanctions will as of this week no longer be allowed to continue to access Coursera and will be blocked from further attendance.

First I thought this was a joke but after a bit of asking around and searching on Twitter it became obvious that indeed students from those countries were no longer allowed to participate on the platform.

Though I haven’t seen an official announcement from Coursera yet you can find an explanation in the FAQs when you search for “Why is my country blocked?

As you may know, certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria). The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law.

Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered “services” (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward.

Screen_Shot_2014-01-21_at_6

We truly regret that this is the case and apologize to users who were caught off guard by this change, but we must comply with U.S. laws regarding economic and trade restrictions.


[Update] Since yesterday evening when I drafted this post Coursera removed the screenshot and changed the last paragraph in the Help section. It now reads

We value our global community of users and sincerely regret the need to take this action. Please know that Coursera is currently working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control to secure the necessary permissions to reinstate site access for users in sanctioned countries. Thank you so much for your patience during this process.


Now, while this might only affect a rather small number of students and therefore won’t cause a big outcry it might have a big effect on future collaborations with universities outside of the US.

Rolf Strom Olsen, one of the professors affected by the change added his own commentary to the message on Facebook.

While I understand why Coursera, as US-based organisation, has to do this, I don’t see why a course taught by a Canadian in a classroom in Spain should be restricted by such US laws. Therefore, if you are from one of the affected countries and would like to continue with the course, please email us for further information.

As a European this was also the first question that came into my mind. I have to admit that I was sceptical about European MOOC platforms that wanted to take on Coursera, Udacity and edX but based on this I am far more open to the idea of being or becoming independent from US based service providers.

For now I did not find similar restrictions in Udacity’s or edX’s terms and conditions but I suppose that’s only a matter of time. Nina Curley at Wamda reports that Udacity has already been banned in Syria for a while. Nevertheless, Coursera due to its partnership with the US State Department and more aggressive push towards paid services might be under more pressure to get their legal ducks in a row.

Obviously, everyone who knows a bit about how the Internet works knows that blocking access via IP address is a pretty easy barrier to crack with VPN software etc. On the other hand, I don’t understand why there is no exception for education providers. Shouldn’t education be a unifier, a tool of diplomacy. Isn’t that the reason why the State Department chose to work together with Coursera?

Of course, we must not forget that Coursera has moved away significantly from being a free education provider as it added a ton of different features to generate revenue which eventually puts them on the list of services that are restricted by export sanctions.

To me, it will be interesting to see in what form this story is going to get picked up and how the discussion and consequences in Europe and South America are going to look like.

Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at KirstenWinkler.com.