Going to school (but not in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, or Syria)

Dr. Ebrahim Afsah 1

Every day I spend at least an hour in class. Above is the University of Copenhagen’s Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, who teaches a course offered by coursera.org, Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World. Click the pic to read the small print on the notice.

Below is Dr. Mohammed Noor of Duke, teaching Genetics and Evolution (“this little section here. . .” ).

Dr. Mohammed Noor 2

I have also been enjoying the class on Mysticism and Psychology, taught by Dr. Jonathan Garb of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dr. Jonathan Garb 4

Sometimes I drop into Rutgers and check out Dr. Daniel Ogilvie, who is interested in how beliefs about the soul get institutionalized:

Dr. Daniel Ogilvie 2

Here is a letter Dr. Ebrahim Afsah sent to his on-line students regarding US sanctions blocking coursera service in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria:

Dear All,

I write this email under protest and with a considerable degree of anger
and sadness. Few things illustrate the bone-headedness, short-sightedness,
and sheer chauvinism of the political structure of the United States better
than the extent to which its ideologues are willing to go to score cheap
domestic political points with narrow interests in the pursuit of a
sanctions regime that has clearly run its course.

You might remember the Apple ad from a few years back, in which the company
proudly announced that their machines were now so powerful that they fell
under export restrictions: “For the first time in history a personal
computer has been classified as a weapon by the US government …”

Well, that was a tongue in cheek quip at their Wintel competitors, but a
few years after that same company decided that also an iPad apparently
could now a weapon, in a rather cowardly anticipatory cow-tow to an ever
expanding and aggressive sanctions regime, when they stopped selling any of
their products to anyone who happened to SPEAK Persian in their stores (the
company has since lifted that idiotic policy):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18545003

But you will now be interested to hear that also my course (and anything
else Coursera offers) has been classified, if not a weapon that could be
misused, then at least a “service” and as such must not fall into the hands
of anybody happening to live in the countries that the United States
government doesn’t like. I have thus been informed that my students in
Cuba, Syria, Sudan and my homeland will no longer be able to access this
course. I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon
and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American
citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as
hola.org or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

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!

Let me end on a personal note: as a recipient of a McCloy Scholarship
created to foster trans-Atlantic friendship and as someone who spent some
of his most formative years in the United States, I have to admit that I am
worried about the path this country is descending to. Blocking teaching
(and medicine) from people whose government one doesn’t like is a fallback
into the darkest hours of the last century. As my teacher at MIT, Prof.
Stephen Van Evera would have told the people responsible for this: your
mothers would not be proud of you today.

Your instructor,

Prof. Dr. Ebrahim Afsah
Faculty of Law
University of Copenhagen

PS: Below an excerpt of the communication I received from Coursera; I know
from previous engagements that there is absolutely nothing they can do in
the current legal climate in the United States:

“As some of you already know, certain U.S. export control regulations
prohibit U.S. businesses, such as Coursera, from offering services to users
in sanctioned countries (Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria). The interpretation
of the export control regulations in the context of MOOCs has been
ambiguous up until now, and we had been operating under one interpretation
of the law. Last week, Coursera received definitive guidance indicating
that access to the course experience is considered a service, and all
services are highly restricted by export controls.
In particular, the notion of “services” includes offering access to human
grading of quizzes and assessments, peer-graded homework, and discussion
forums. Regrettably, Coursera must therefore cease offering MOOC access to
users in certain sanctioned countries in order to ensure compliance with
these U.S. laws and to avoid serious legal ramifications.”

PPS: I don’t think it is very constructive to voice your opposition to
Coursera, as they can’t do anything about it anyway. If you feel you must
voice your discontent, direct it at the political representatives who are
responsible for this situation, i.e. your congressman or -woman if you are
a US citizen or the local US representation if you are not.
Visit the course to start learning

Dr. Ebrahim Afsah 3

Click to enlarge the picture and see what military might looks like on a postage stamp.

Dr. Ebrahim Afsah 4

What if Canada got cut off from the world?

Dr. Daniel Ogilvie 3

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One thought on “Going to school (but not in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, or Syria)

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