MOOCs are meant to deliver cheap, accessible education to people worldwide, but it has been reported that the large online education platform initially founded by two Stanford professors, Coursera, has been blocking access to students in Syria and Iran. The for-profit MOOC operator recently released a statement explaining the block.
“Under [US export control regulations], certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries, with the exception of Syria,” the statement says.
Export control regulations in regards to MOOCs, a relatively new enterprise, were unclear. Recently the U.S Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control alerted Coursera that it was in fact not in compliance and therefore “we instituted a restriction in compliance with current export controls to ensure that our business remains in good standing with the law,” the company stated.
Although Coursera was able to restore full access to students in Syria, it remains blocked in Sudan, Iran and Cuba.
For countries that fall under current US sanctions and regulations, when students try to access the site in attempts to access its free content they will be faced with the following from Coursera:
“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions. In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”
“This is really bad for us,” says Ahmad Sufian Bayram, the MENA Connector for French collaborative consumption network OuiShare and lead organizer of the upcoming startup Damascus, he has also written on how collaborative consumption could solve a myriad of problems in the Arab world. Thanks to the current conflict, “most people cannot go to universities, and cannot take extra courses, so we look to free online courses to make up the difference. We rely on these courses for knowledge, to learn how to become entrepreneurs,” he explains.
Nina Curley of Wamda writes that since its launch in 2012, Coursera has grown to involve over 100 institutional partners in 19 countries, providing courses from 700 professors to around 5.5 million students. Its mission “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free,” is now argued to be in conflict due its denial of access to certain students, costing it a universal presence.
Coursera now rivals its competitor Udacity, which must also comply with US sanctions and deny access to certain countries, in that it offers students the option to obtain a certificate in “specializations” or themed tracks of closely connected courses by paying $250 upwards to $500 USD.
Since its boost this past November in raising money from $16 million to $63 million, the company is now trying to find a sustainable business model. It currently has a revenue share model where it grants 6 to 15% of revenue and 20% of profits to universities for courses taught by their professors. To offer real university credit to its students that seek it, the company must show that students will pay, and losing out on a potential profit window may hinder that goal.
As of right now, it is unlikely that for-profit MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity will be able to be as universal as their founders originally wanted, but with the use of VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks) and the small offering of non-for-profit MOOC edX, students may still have a chance of continuing their education.