Feds Blocking Online Courses in Sanctioned Nations is Bad Policy

Cuba, Sudan, and Syria Coursera block can backfire

The U.S. government has banned online course provider Coursera from allowing access to students living in sanctioned countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Sudan.

In their anouncement, Coursera says that they are “working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Assets Control to secure permissions to reinstate site access for students in sanctioned countries. The Department of State and Coursera are aligned in our goals and we are working tirelessly to ensure that blockage is not permanent.” However, after a month, access to courses has yet to be restored in these regions.

I do not consider myself an expert in the field of national security, history, or global politics. However, I can see a pattern and the concept of blocking education to an “at risk individual” is almost certainly a bad idea.

There is a reason why history has shown that oppressors first ban learning, reading, and writing. If you limit the education of those you oppress, they are less likely to overthrow your power. Furthermore, it makes it easier for your government to spread its own message through propaganda and intimidation.

It is therefore surprising that the US would block education to regions they wish to see change. Wouldn’t you typically see that nation blocking the site instead? Isn’t this US policy playing right into their hands?

Now if Coursera were forced to block courses involving nuclear energy, or pathogenic transfers I can see an argument. We don’t want to teach potential terrorists how to better kill us. However, I doubt the level of detail in such a MOOC could cause any more damage than other readily available internet content like the “anarchist cookbook.”

What damage could Coursera’s and the University of California’s “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention” possibly cause? If anything it could do much to improve the lives of those in sanctioned nations.

A child in a sanctioned country having access to education untouched by their government could grow to appreciate the country that provided it.  After all, what greater gift is there than the knowledge to succeed and survive? However, the act of blocking that education could have untold consequences.

MOOCs can serve as an olive branch in regions where the influence of the West is limited. They can serve as a foundation to encourage science, reasoning, and logic that can give a populace the tools they need to recognize their government as oppressive and ignite the spark towards a resolution.  

For that matter, in Asimov’s book Foundation, the Encyclopedia Galactica served not just as a method to teach those in the “dark ages” after the fall of an empire. It also served to gather those who could bring peace. Asimov famously said that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” What might we be if we block competence?

This article is the opinion of Shawn Wasserman.

References Coursera

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.