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Massive open online course providers have identified global expansion as one of the key goals of 2014, but a recent directive from the federal government has forced some of them to cut off access to students in certain countries.

Federal regulations prohibit U.S. businesses from offering services to countries subject to economic sanctions -- a list that includes Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan -- but as recently as this month, students in those countries were still able to access Coursera’s MOOCs. When a student last week attempted to log in from a Syrian IP address, the website produced an error message:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions. In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

Syrian students aren’t the only ones locked out of Coursera. At least one Iranian student protested the change on Facebook, saying the ban helps “hardliners in Iran ... impose their ideology and beliefs in the absence of a widespread, free higher education system.”

The news was first reported by the website Wamda, an online community for entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa.

Coursera explained the change in its online help center:

“The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law,” the website reads. “Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward.”

A spokeswoman for Coursera said that, for American MOOC providers, the ban also extends to MOOCs created by institutions outside the U.S. “This is an unfortunate situation and Coursera is working toward a solution that will enable students to access educational content in compliance with U.S. law,” she said.

Udacity, another MOOC provider, has not received official word about enrolling students in countries subject to economic sanctions, but the company faces its own issues to global distribution, said Clarissa Shen, vice president of strategic business and marketing, The MOOC provider posts lecture content to YouTube, which is already blocked in several countries.

The only option for students in the sanctioned countries may be edX, the MOOC provider founded in partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tena Herlihy, edX’s general counsel, said the company has since last May worked with the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and has so far applied for and received company-specific licenses for its MOOCs to enroll students in Cuba and Iran (a third license, for Sudan, is still in the works).

“We want to provide education to anyone with an internet connection,” Herlihy said. “We do not want to withhold education from someone just because of the country they live in."

In addition to applying for licenses, the office also issues general licenses that don’t apply to a specific person or organization. Herlihy said edX is operating under such a license in Syria, but declined to elaborate. One such license, however, exempts “services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Intemet” from the sanctions.

EdX is not blocking any courses, Herlihy said, adding that edX would not offer any courses that, hypothetically speaking, could be deemed “detrimental to U.S. interests.” She also described the State Department as being supportive of the company’s efforts to distribute online education through MOOCs.

“I think this is all new territory to everyone,” Herlihy said. “We decided to ask for licenses because we didn’t know the answers. As we’re in new territories, we’re all learning together.”

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