US government blocking access to ‘head bone’ online college courses, says Coursera professor

Ebrahim Afsah.jpg

Ebrahim Afsah, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Copenhagen, teaches a course on “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World” via Coursera. This week, its students in Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan were denied access to free online education due to a decision by the US State Department, a move that Afsah calls “Bone head”.

(courtesy Coursera and the University of Copenhagen)

This is how an expert in international and Middle Eastern law characterizes the recent request by the US government that a US provider of free online university courses prohibit access to students in Iran, Cuba, Sudan and the United States. Syria.

Coursera, launched by two professors at Stanford University in 2012, offers free lectures from more than 100 universities around the world, including many leading American schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern.

Coursera is the largest of the massive open online course companies known as MOOCs that have rocked the world of higher education in the last year. Since its launch, Coursera has enrolled more than 6 million students.

On Tuesday, Coursera informed students that the US State Department had determined that his company qualified as a “service” under export control sanctions against a number of countries, including Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria, and that the company had to block access. for its students in these countries.

Subsequently, it was determined that the company had an exemption in the law relating to Syria which allows certain services in support of increased access to education there, and the service has now been restored.

The State Department ruling apparently applies to all US-based MOOCs except edX, a program founded by Harvard and MIT – because edX applied for a special license last year allowing it to operate in Iran and Cuba, according to a report today in the Financial Times. EdX is not yet licensed to operate in Sudan, but has not blocked access there, according to the company’s general counsel.

A comment posted under Coursera announcement reads: “I am Syrian and I know a lot of friends who rely on Coursera to complete their studies. Many Syrian students have not been able to continue their studies at Syrian universities – due to the ongoing conflict – and view Coursera as their only educational resource. Thank you Coursera for your incredible effort! “

Another comment reads: “The irony is… educating people in these countries is the best way to make them pro-American – or at least more in line with the values ​​that most Americans share. “

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told PennLive on Wednesday afternoon that “since the start of the block, around 2,000 unique IP addresses have been blocked from connecting to Coursera.”

Koller noted that “that doesn’t necessarily equate to 2,000 students, because an individual can attempt to log in from multiple devices.”

Nonetheless, many have been excluded from the education they had access to last week.

A Coursera professor blasted the US government decision in an email to students enrolled in his course.

Ebrahim Afsah, professor of international law at the University of Copenhagen who teaches a course on “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World”, emailed his students on Tuesday afternoon saying: “There is little to illustrate the point. heedlessness, myopia and sheer chauvinism of the political structure of the United States better than the extent to which its ideologues are willing to go to score cheap domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a sanctions regime which has clearly run its course. “

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the students of this course, which is a very high quality investigation of the historical, political, economic and religious forces that have shaped the extraordinarily divergent forms of government in countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Afsah was born in Iran, raised in Germany, and educated in England, Ireland and the United States; his degrees include a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School at Harvard.

“I am appalled by this decision,” he said in the email. “Rest assured that these are not the values ​​of the University of Copenhagen, of its law school, and certainly not mine!”

In conclusion, Afsah wrote, “Let me end on a personal note: as a recipient of a McCloy scholarship created to foster transatlantic friendship and as someone who has spent some of his most formative years in the States. -United, I have to admit I worry about the path this country is heading towards Blocking the education (and medicine) of people whose government we don’t like is a withdrawal darkest hours of the last century.

“As a professor at MIT, Professor Stephen Van Evera reportedly told those responsible for this: Your mothers wouldn’t be proud of you today.”

Afsah is no stranger to US politics: he participated in a US State Department project on administrative reform in Afghanistan, working for Deloitte with the aim of making the country’s administration more efficient.

“We were the ‘wave of civilians’, if you will,” Afsah said.

It has done similar work under the auspices of the European Union and the United Nations.

Afsah spoke to PennLive on Wednesday and he made it clear that he did not oppose the sanctions.

He added, however, that if the sanctions legislation is drafted “in such a comprehensive way that it leaves very little room for the executive to operate – which I believe is the case here – you are creating problems. additional negative externalities.

“I much prefer sanctions to military action,” Afsah said, “but I wonder if the tools you use can actually achieve the goals you want to achieve”.

He said: “I know from personal experience that the sanctions also apply to the supply of drugs. Iranians have a huge problem getting the medicine they need – and that is clearly not a great way to make friends.

Specific to the recent Coursera ruling, Afsah said, “I can’t imagine any imaginable scenario where anything happening on a Coursera platform – or that of one of their competitors – could harm a citizen. American or contradict any objective of American foreign policy. “

Coursera includes a commentary forum for each course, in which all enrolled students are encouraged to discuss questions relating to course topics. People from very different cultures and backgrounds share their views and freely debate issues.

Afsah said her own course is a great example.

“What we are doing in this course is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be done in the Middle East if we are to break the current impasse. But if you limit the debate to the people who are already listening to you, I wonder how you never achieve the results of freedom of speech and free trade “that most Westerners would like to see developed there.

As recently as last fall, it seemed the State Department had agreed.

In late October, a State Department official said that one of the best ways to promote a more peaceful and prosperous world “is to ensure that everyone has access to high quality education.”

The statement was made in conjunction with the announcement that free discussion groups would be offered at U.S. embassies for students enrolled in online courses – in a State Department partnership with Coursera.

A call to the State Department’s press office for comment was not returned on Wednesday.

At Stanford, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said: “We are all saddened by the lack of access for students to Cuba, Iran, Sudan and, until yesterday, Syria, and we are working hard to get the approvals needed to restore learning to anyone, anywhere.

“Meanwhile,” she said, “we are grateful to the State Department for its assistance in this matter.

“We remain firmly committed to connecting students around the world with educational resources and will do everything possible to expedite the process of lifting student restrictions in sanctioned countries in the weeks to come.”

And in the meantime, Professor Afsah has encouraged his students in affected countries “to use services like or VPN routers to get around these restrictions.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from the original to add the paragraph referring to the Financial Times report that the ruling did not affect edX because this company last year requested a special license to operate in Iran and Cuba.

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