The World

The Ridiculous U.S. Sanctions Keeping Iranians and Cubans From Taking Online Courses

Cubans gather at a cybercafe in Havana on June 21, 2013. 

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a healthy debate on whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a useful tool for giving thousands of people around the world access to high-quality college-level education, are downgrading the value of elite educational institutions, or are simply overhyped. But that aside, it seems immensely shortsighted to keep people from enrolling in such courses because of their governments’ policies. The Financial Times reports:

Coursera, a major provider of massive open online courses or Moocs, has begun blocking access to its site for users in Iran, Sudan and Cuba while it works with US regulators to secure an exception from the nation’s trade sanctions on those nations.

“It is with deep regret that we have had to make a change to our accessibility in some countries,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

As of this week, the group said, students accessing the site from computers in those three countries will not be able to log on to the site or create new accounts.

Strangely, this development comes not too long after the U.S. government lifted sanctions on communications equipment for Iran in hopes of opening up access to the Internet and social media.

It’s a stretch to say that online courses from U.S. professors will significantly further the cause of democracy in Iran. But it certainly can’t hurt to establish lines of communications like these. Even travel restrictions as strict as those the U.S. has imposed on Cuba make some allowances for educational exchanges. (Some professors are reportedly encouraging students to use virtual private networks to access the courses.)

Governments like Iran’s have been working hard separate the country’s web from the larger Internet. It seems like a mistake to make that job easier for them.