Friday, January 31, 2014

Sanctioning The MOOCs

The US Government's decision to stop Coursera (and presumably other MOOCs) from delivering the courses in Syria, Iran, Cuba and Sudan is astonishing, if not outright misdirected. Indeed, I come to know of this as I am doing a course 'Constitutional Struggles in The Islamic World' from University of Copenhagen, and the notification tells me that the students taking the course from the above-mentioned countries will be stopped from taking the course. The act of sanction, therefore, appears completely counter-productive in the context.

The mail from Prof. Dr. Ebrahim Afsah that bore the notification states:

"Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter! At any rate, rest assured that these are not the values of the University of Copenhagen, of its Faculty of Law, and most assuredly not mine!"

The point made in the notification, appended to Professor Afsah's mail, is that the course experience has now been definitively classified as a 'service', and therefore been included in the sanctions regime. I am sure this is not just about Coursera, a For-Profit enterprise, and will extend to all MOOCs, including EdX and others. It would be interesting to see whether US Government also considers 'services' such as MIT OpenCourseware to come under the sanctions, because this could be quite effectively used by academics in sanctioned countries to offer education and an open window to the outside world, what the US Government is intending to block.

This raises many questions, like

(a) Is this a suppression of academic freedom barring academics from delivering courses to those who are wanting to learn?

(b) Does this highlight the need of creating non-US based MOOCs, because any US business can be used as a tool for US Government policy? 

(c) Does a policy like this defeat the stated purpose of punishing errant governments, and go to the extent of blocking people to people contact?

(d) Should this apply to an Iranian (or from any of these countries) citizen wanting to study abroad?

Given that a tiny fraction of total MOOC population is from these countries, this may not appear to be an important debate. However, in my mind, this is quite fundamental, because this act slays the 'Open' bit in the MOOC: It is no longer open, but subject to sanctions. Such philosophical points may not matter to most, and not certainly to money men, but should bother the academic community involved in the MOOCs. 



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