Revised Trade Sanctions Mean Access to U.S.-Based MOOCs for Iranian Students

By Sam Atkeson — June 13, 2014 3 min read
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Cross-posted from Marketplace K-12 blog:

U.S. providers of “MOOCs,” or massive, open, online courses, are now permitted to enroll Iranian students in a majority of online courses, following the issuing of a General License by the Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizing “the exportation or importation of certain educational services” between the two countries.

This is a positive development for MOOC providers who have identified global distribution as a primary goal in 2014. However, it’s unclear to what extent the decision to allow the online exchange between two nations with historically tense relations will result in the expansion of MOOCs into new international markets, beyond those already served.

Cuba, Sudan and North Korea remain the only sanctioned countries without general licenses permitting the exchange of educational services.

In Iran, restrictions have been lifted on the distribution of MOOCs that offer academic content based on courses ordinarily required to complete undergraduate degrees in the humanities, social sciences, law and business, as well as introductory undergraduate-level STEM courses.

Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based ed-tech company and one of the world’s leading MOOC providers serving over 7 million students in 190 different countries, announced the restoration of course access in Iran on its blog last Tuesday. The action comes four months after the company announced it would be blocking Iranian students from enrollment in order to comply with U.S. trade regulations on the sanctioned country.

Prior to those restrictions, Coursera served an estimated 20,000 students in Iran.

“We’re glad to open our digital doors again to these learners, and hopefully many more,” the company stated.

With regard to sanctions still prohibiting operations in Cuba and Sudan, Coursera said that it looks “toward a future where all knowledge is free, accessible and unhindered.”

Export controls have proved a contentious issue for MOOC providers, who see giving online visitors unrestricted access to educational material as integral to the very nature of such courses.

The leaders of Canvas Network, a MOOC platform that serves K-12 students and others, say that building a diverse worldwide enrollment is fundamental to the development of the online courses.

“We want all kinds of students, organizations, and government entities to be able to experiment with different MOOCs,” said Melissa Loble, senior director of Canvas Network, which is based in Salt Lake City. “Part of that experimentation is seeing how we can continue to promote open access.”

According to Loble, promoting open access means not only working to license more course materials under Creative Commons licensing, but also expanding the global reach of those materials. Currently, roughly 30 percent of Canvas network’s students are outside of the United States. Over the past year, Canvas Network has offered a MOOC titled “Exploring Engineering,” a Brown University course that exposes high school students to potential career paths in various engineering fields. Thirty-nine percent of students who have signed up for this course are based outside United States.

Canvas Network is currently planning a rollout of 10 additional MOOCs for K-12 students to be offered this coming August through the end of the year. As of now, Iranian students are permitted to enroll, but unless U.S. policy changes, students attempting to access these courses from a Cuban or Sudanese IP address will be blocked.

“If we can, we want to offer services” in those two countries, Loble said. “But in the meantime we have to abide by federal law.”

Will we see a general license permitting citizens of Sudan and Cuba to enroll in U.S.-based MOOCs any time soon? Officials at Coursera and Canvas Network say they will continue to work with lawmakers and relevant parties toward achieving this goal.

While the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control won’t comment on decisions about future licensing policy, a statement from a spokesperson for the agency suggested that U.S. officials see the expansion of U.S. MOOCs into other nations as a way to promote international goodwill.

“This general license will enhance the educational ties between Iran and the United States,” the Treasury department said. “We reaffirm our belief that strengthening cultural and academic ties between our two countries benefits both the Iranian and American people.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.