Coursera fights to lift ban on students in Iran, Cuba, Sudan

January 31, 2014: 2:32 PM ET

Amid protests from professors and students all over the world, the U.S. State Department has forced the online education site to block access to students in sanctioned nations. Fortune speaks with Coursera's Daphne Koller on the matter.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

FORTUNE -- Since its inception, Coursera, the education company that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) to 6.3 million users in 190 different countries, has committed publicly -- and repeatedly -- to delivering free education to all. The U.S. Department of State, however, has other plans in mind, and has forced the site to cut off access to students in sanctioned countries.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said Thursday that the site offers more than just course materials and lectures; it fosters cultural exchanges and understanding between people "who in many cases have been traditional enemies."

Koller's conversation with Fortune took place two days after revelations that Coursera was denying access to students in countries subject to U.S. trade and economic sanctions -- Syria, Sudan, Iran, and Cuba -- to comply with State Department regulations.

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The site's professors and students were quick to respond. In an email to his Coursera students on Tuesday, Professor Ebrahim Afsah of the University of Copenhagen called the regulation bone-headed, shortsighted, and chauvinistic; an attempt by the U.S. to "score cheap domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a sanctions regime that has clearly run its course." A student commenting on Coursera's blog post about the issue wrote, "Wow, as a U.S. citizen I am embarrassed for my country." Another posted, "please start a course titled 'how to not make stupid laws.'" And someone else quipped, "Never mind, we Chinese will teach them."

Coursera's blog post emphasized how much the company values its international students and worldwide reach. Koller said Thursday that in the 22 months since its launch, the site's classes have already helped students bridge cultural and historical divides. She cited a few examples: "There's a course from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on brains, neurons, and synapses, and we were so super-proud of the fact that many of the students that took the class were from Arab countries who are officially in a state of war [with Israel]," Koller says. A professor from another Israeli institution delivers his lectures in Arabic as a way to connect with Arabic students, Koller says. "We've been told by a number of students that they've had the opportunity to mesh with students from different parts of the world that they aren't necessarily familiar with or who are [their] traditional enemies. They've seen that these are people just like them and that's really changed their perspective."

You'd think that the State Department would want to encourage this type of positive sentiment in sanctioned countries. But as of now, that's not the case. The State Department did not return a request for comment. In explaining the restrictions to its users, Coursera said that "certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Under the law, certain aspects of Coursera's course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries."

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Coursera, for its part, has no choice but to play by the rules. It expressed "deep regret" for having to ban access to some students, but as a U.S.-based company, its hands are tied. Koller estimates that the site has blocked about 2,000 IP addresses registered in the sanctioned nations.

Koller said that Coursera is "working very intensely with the State Department" to "get the licenses that we need to reopen access as soon as possible" to Sudan, Cuba, and Iran. It's already regained access to Syria by obtaining the appropriate trade license. "We at Coursera have always been committed to broad, universal access to education," she said, adding, "without qualifiers."

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