Coursera MOOCs blocked in Sudan, Cuba and Iran

29 Jan

I have to say I am loving the Human Evolution: Past and Future MOOC (massive open online course) as it continues into the 2nd week.  I am not currently at university or in a position to access journal articles easily so I really value the fact that the team behind the MOOC and Coursera have put together such an informative and up to date course.  Could you imagine if you were taking part in that course, or any of the hundreds of other free online courses offered by Coursera, and woke up one day to find that your access to the course had been shut off?  Unfortunately that is now the reality for any one taking a Coursera MOOC in Iran, Cuba or Sudan.

In a blog entry dated to the 28th of January 2014 at 8.22pm Coursera declared that the US government had enacted a sanction on the US based course provider effectively blocking any access to courses in the above three countries.  Syria was also blocked but that has since been lifted.

Here is part of the transcript:

Providing access to education for everyone has always been at the core of Coursera’s mission, and it is with deep regret that we have had to make a change to our accessibility in some countries.

Certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries, with the exception of Syria (see below).

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” (Read the full entry here).

There are also worries that people living along the borders of these countries will also be affected by the ban.  Although Coursera is based in America there are a high number of its academic staff and organisation partners based all over the world.  This has affected many academic institutions and individuals.

I dearly hope this is temporary.  To my mind it seems a bit of a step backwards to limit the accessibility of free online academic courses.  I have blogged on related topics before about the value of MOOCs, of Iran’s often restrictive attitude to education, and I’ve also highlighted just how little a proportion of the world’s population have access to the internet itself.  I have also blogged before about my worries for net neutrality in a quickly changing world.

It has to be said that there are sadly a number of countries that ban or severely limit access to the world wide web, with China having a particularly strict firewall.  Some countries have a very limited internet capability while others simply have a very mobile population.

There are a number of programs and software installations that can be used to circumvent the IP address ban.  These can include VPN (Virtual Private Networks) or use of the free Tor software (see comments below though), a program which allows anonymity and censorship resistance and is widely used by the public, clandestine humanitarian centers and undercover agents.  There are a number of other methods that can be used as well – see here.  Be aware that the above methods of internet anonymity may be illegal in certain countries and is no way encouraged.

I will try to keep abreast of this development in the accessibility of Coursera MOOCs and I will update this entry as necessary and appropriate.

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4 Responses to “Coursera MOOCs blocked in Sudan, Cuba and Iran”

  1. the17thfish January 30, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    A quick word of warning; if anonymity is required as well as just getting around censorship, using flash player with Tor (e.g. to watch videos on coursera) can reveal your actual IP address, breaking the anonymity. Any third party extension can potentially do this (I think… I’m no expert though). If anonymity is needed I suggest the tor browser bundle which ships with it’s own preconfigured version of Firefox and will at least warn you if you’re doing something that will likely break anonymity. https://www.torproject.org/projects/torbrowser.html.en

    Nice post though :).

    • These Bones Of Mine January 30, 2014 at 11:05 am #

      Ah yes of course, it says this on the Tor website. You can download the Coursera videos though, so I presume the option to log on and then download the videos instead of streaming them would still keep the IP address anonymous? Thank for the comment!

      • the17thfish January 31, 2014 at 8:53 am #

        Again I’m not sure, but yes I think so. Of course you’d want to be careful when logging in to accounts unless you also made the account anonymous and only ever access it through something like Tor… I think for the most part with Coursera being blocked, it’s an issue of censorship rather than anonymity. I highly doubt anyone will be chased down for accessing Coursera through a proxie… But I could be wrong!

        • These Bones Of Mine January 31, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

          Oh definitely agreed, it is all about censorship, but Tor and other programs give the ability to access sites and information that would otherwise be blocked by geographic IP address blocking, I think. I hope not! Keep up the fantastic work over at your blog by the way, loving the biology post!

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