Coursera regrets: Students from Cuba, Iran, Sudan banned due to U.S. law

Education for the masses clashed with export law.. the law won.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on
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Online learning service Coursera has withdrawn its service from Cuba, Iran and Sudan following an examination of U.S. export law.

The massive open online course (MOOC) provider has over six million registered students able to take their pick from 596 courses offered by educational institutions worldwide. Tools, lectures and quizzes are part of courses ranging from cybersecurity to ethics and classical music composition. As a student myself who has tackled studies in cryptography and game programming, I've found the classes -- taken over a number of weeks -- useful, although sometimes difficult to fit in through my work schedule.

That's no cause for complaint, however, since the classes are free and part of the MOOC provider's aim to "provide access to education for everyone."

Everyone, except students residing in Cuba, Iran or Sudan.

In a move that is counter-productive to the startup's mission statement, Coursera has blocked its own services from these countries due to U.S. restrictions on international business. Within a blog post, Coursera said that with "deep regret" the students in these countries will no longer be able to access free courses.

As the organization is not non-profit and does make money from students pursuing particular certificates or exams, under U.S. law, Coursera's courses are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions as they are considered exports. As of this week, students in Cuba, Iran or Sudan cannot log in to course pages or create new accounts, but can still browse the course catalog and reach Coursera's blog as they are "considered public information rather than services and therefore not subject to restrictions."

The company states:

"Our global community is incredibly valuable to us and we remain committed to providing quality to education to all. During this time, we empathize with the frustrations of students who are affected by this change and we have made it a top priority to make rapid progress toward a solution.

Coursera is working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries."

The MOOC provider says that the interpretation of export control regulations relating to MOOCs has been fuzzy in the past, and so Coursera thought it would not be restricted. However, Coursera says that "recently received information has led to the understanding that the services offered on Coursera are not in compliance with the law as it stands."

There is, however, a silver lining. Coursera has implemented an IP address book which stops them in particular countries, but hypothetically until -- if -- the block is lifted, the use of a virtual private network (VPN) could allow students to continue learning. In addition, service has been restored in Syria after a regulation loophole for certain non-government organizations in education allowed the block to be lifted.

It is, no doubt, a difficult position for Coursera to be in. Restricting service to several countries allows it to comply with U.S. law -- which could in theory take the service down for good -- but this move clashes against its ethos of free education for the masses, no matter where you're from.

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