One development covered here at e-Literate this year has been the US State Department and Treasury Department forcing the MOOC providers to block access for students in Iran, Sudan, Cuba and Syria. Kris Olds has also provided excellent coverage as well as Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed. In late January Coursera had to start blocking students in these four countries while edX continued working with these students. Then in early March edX had to start blocking students in Iran, Sudan and Cuba.
Today’s news is that OFAC has granted a General License G to allow academic exchanges such as MOOCs to operate within Iran.
— GlobalHigherEd (@GlobalHigherEd) March 20, 2014
It appears that the main effect is that now Coursera will be able to allow Iranian students to access the majority (but not all) of their courses. The actual license applies to courses:
provided by U.S. academic institutions in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business provided that the courses are the equivalent of courses ordinarily required for the completion of undergraduate degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business, or are introductory undergraduate level science, technology, engineering, or math courses ordinarily required for the completion of undergraduate degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, law, or business.
From my reading of this license, edX will not see a change. They only had certain courses blocked such as “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics”, and this course does not seem to fit under the new license.
We now have confirmation that one key determinant that triggered OFAC to force the blocking of MOOCs was specifically the grading available in MOOCs. From the license:
U.S. persons, wherever located, are authorized to administer professional certificate examinations and university entrance examinations, including, but not limited to, multiple choice standardized tests, and to provide those services that are necessary or required for admission to U.S. academic institutions, to individuals who are located in Iran or located outside Iran but who are ordinarily resident in Iran.
The license is broader than just for MOOCs:
Academic Exchanges. Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this general license, accredited graduate and undergraduate degree-granting academic institutions located in the United States (collectively, “U.S. academic institutions”), including their contractors, are authorized to enter into student academic exchange agreements with universities located in Iran (collectively, “Iranian universities”) related to undergraduate or graduate educational courses, and to engage in all activities related to such agreements, including, but not limited to, the provision of scholarships to students enrolled in Iranian universities to allow such students to attend U.S. academic institutions.
Erich Ferrari at LobeLog has some interesting thoughts on the politics that prompted this change in policy.
With Iran’s participation in on-going talks regarding its disputed nuclear program, the US appears to have found another concession that it can easily offer to the Iranians as a show of good faith. That said, what appears like an easing of sanctions is in reality merely the broadening of a current policy that benefits the Iranian people while also cutting down on the administrative paperwork OFAC will have to handle as it shifts from a specific licensing policy to a generally authorized one.
While this license does change requirements from a specific license such as what edX has in place to a general one that multiple programs can use, it should be noted that the US government is clearly saying that institutions and MOOC providers can operate in Iran (and the other three countries) only under a license. Permission is required, and OFAC has shown its ability to change course when politics or diplomacy get in the way.
In my opinion, this release of General License G is an improvement, but a very limited improvement. We are still in a situation requiring explicit government approval based on specific countries and specific areas of study.