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EdX Blocks Course Content to Cuba, Iran, Sudan

UPDATED: March 3, 2014, at 10:58 p.m.

Due to federal regulations, edX plans to block students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan from taking an upcoming online course on aerodynamics and modern aircraft design, according to a blog post written by edX president Anant Agarwal on Monday.

“We are deeply sorry to have to block any student anywhere from taking an edX course,” Agarwal wrote in the post. “This is completely antithetical to the vision and foundational values of edX and all [massive open online courses]. We will continue to work diligently with the U.S. government until every student, from any country in the world, can take any course they choose on edX.”

The course, entitled “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics” and taught by MIT faculty, covers advanced physics and aircraft design. It is scheduled to begin classes on March 5.

After months of edX petitioning the U.S. government to distribute courses to Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control refused to grant edX a license to allow students in those countries to take the aerodynamics course.

“EdX recently learned that this course was not covered by the licenses granted to us for offering courses to students in these countries,” Agarwal said.

The U.S. Department of State has designated Cuba, Iran, and Sudan as State Sponsors of Terrorism, a status accompanied by sanctions that include embargo laws to “penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors,” according to the State Department website. Syria has also had State Sponsor of Terrorism status since December of 1979.

EdX will temporarily prevent students in the three embargoed countries from accessing the course by blocking their IP addresses, which identify users by location.

EdX is not the first online education platform to block students in these countries from accessing course content. The for-profit online education platform Coursera stopped distributing course material to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan during late January citing the State Department sanctions that prevent the transfer of services to State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Despite U.S. sanctions, edX has previously tried to avoid blocking content to any users worldwide. On February 2nd, Agarwal wrote a blog post announcing that edX would not have to block course content to any countries.

According to the post, the company had obtained the necessary licenses to permit the distribution of courses to the embargoed countries.

However, according to Tena Herlihy, vice president and general counsel of edX, the licenses obtained for Cuba, Iran, and Sudan were specific and therefore required edX to submit each new advanced STEM course individually for review before distributing it to those countries.

Herlihy also said that edX received a general license to distribute all of its courses—including “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics”—to Syria.

Herlihy noted that discussions are still ongoing. She added that she expects to hear more details on the status of the course in the coming weeks.

—Staff writer Michael V. Rothberg can be reached at mrothberg@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mvrothberg.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: March 4, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that edX must submit each new course it offers in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan for a licensing review before it can be made availible. To clarify, the licensing process is only required for advanced STEM courses.

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