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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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Anthropology & Academia

25 Aug

Whilst having a break during attempted statistical analysis of some data I found this interesting article on Al Jazeera, via the ‘Archaeology’ group on a social networking site.  The author, Sarah Kendzior who is an an Anthropology PhD graduate,  draws attention to the plight of the anthropology postgraduate in academia.  Her article focuses on individuals who are facing tough times in gaining employment, and a living wage, in certain sections of American Academia due to the rise of adjunct professors and unpaid internships.  Added to this are the prohibitive costs of annual conferences that can cost a crippling amount of money to attend and which may not always deliver in content.

Graduates in Silhouette

From an article in the Guardian on networking and flexibility in the academic job market. Photo credit: Paul Barton/CORBIS.

This is similar to the upswing of a larger trend of unpaid internships right across the jobs market, in which competition is tough to gain vital work experience.  This has partly became prevalent due to the ongoing financial crisis, as it’s effects continue to ripple across the world, and various countries and businesses tighten their belts.  Part of this is also probably due to making academic work pay in a world where academic jobs can be scarce and the funding opportunities limited.

The article also rightly highlights the ‘walled garden’ effect of academic research, where access to research articles in respected journals can cost universities and institutions thousands of pounds a year to maintain.  I know that once I finish my MSc course a number of important and interesting journals will be unavailable for my perusal, due to the prohibitive cost of maintaining a subscription.  However, with the rise in the number of anthropology related blogs, such as Bones Don’t Lie and Powered By Osteons and websites such as Past Horizons, amongst many others, research is continuing to be disseminated freely across the internet.  The debate continues as to whether this type of information sharing and writing should be considered an academic publication though.

In other news Iran has recently proscribed a ban on females attending University in over 70 BA and BSc programs in 36 institutions across the country.  Protests have already begun, both internally and internationally, at the decision whilst Shirin Ebadi, a noted human rights campaigner, has called on the UN to investigate the situation.  Meanwhile in England there has been a drop in the number of University applicants this year, especially from mature students.  Although not a damaging percentage, the effects of the increase of tuition fees last year have led to many reconsidering the cost, and essentially the worth, of entering higher education.

If academia seeks to educate the masses, it must in some way help to represent the masses.

Note: Perhaps somewhat relevant to this post is the Editorial from a recent Antiquity issue.  In it Martin Carver denounces the lack of formal training in field archaeology or primary data collection that doctoral candidates are required to do for their award, compared to the amount of time spent in the library.  Also mentioned is the distinction of quality between book publications and research articles, the value of local archaeological groups and volunteers and the news of the recent destruction of Timbuktu’s ancient tombs in Mali.  It is well worth a read.