An American Abroad

Two ELT MOOCs on Coursera

Coursera is offering two MOOCs that might be of interest to my friends and readers with an interest in teaching English as a foreign language.

Shaping the Way We Teach English 1: The Landscape of English Language Teaching and Shaping the Way We Teach English 2: Paths to Success in ELT are sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the University of Oregon. They’re free and they are five weeks long each. Part 1 begins on April 7, while Part 2 starts May 12.

The course description reads:

This course is aimed at English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers, both those who are intending to pursue this field as a career and those already working in the field who would like to revise and refresh their methods and approaches. The materials and approaches presented should complement college courses such as Introduction to TEFL/TESOL Methods.

I’ve taken many MOOCs with Coursera; you can see my complete list of such courses on my CV. Coursera’s platform is easy to navigate and the course content has been interesting, informative, and well-presented. I’ve signed up for these two courses already and hope to see some of my online friends there.

MOOCs and American Shortsightedness

Since moving to China, I’ve become enamored of—or maybe addicted to—MOOCs: massive open online courses.

English books are scarce here and I am isolated by a language barrier from meaningful adult conversation. MOOCs have therefore been a critical source of intellectual stimulation for me. I’ve taken classes from universities in the United States, Australia, England, China, Scotland, Israel, New Zealand, Granada, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I’ve studied anthropology, music, astronomy, history, political science, education, medicine, English literature, and management. You can see what all I’ve taken on my CV.

I’ll discuss my experience with online education in detail in another post or article. For today, though, I want to share an email from Ebrahim Afsah, a professor on the faculty of law at the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Afsah was the instructor in one of the best MOOCs I’ve taken thus far, Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World. The course title is somewhat misleading; the class itself was a masterful survey of the politics, sociology, history, and legal systems of Muslim countries worldwide. It was offered through Coursera, one of the largest and best MOOC platforms.

In late January of this year, Dr. Afsah sent the below email to all the students in his MOOC. I concur with everything he says here. I share his frustration at an American policy that denies the benefits of liberal education to students in places where it is sorely needed.

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[, the] same company decided that also an iPad apparently could now [be] 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):

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 [(Iran)] 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 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.

Jim here again. Let me add one more thought.

During the Cold War, the United States encouraged educational and cultural exchanges with citizens of communist countries. America wasn’t afraid then of providing education to those people; on the contrary, educational exchanges were seen as a vital part of citizen diplomacy and as a way of planting the seeds of freedom and democracy. Nowadays, though, the US is terribly fearful that someone in Iran, Cuba, Syria or Sudan might learn something online bout politics or math or history or science or medicine or literature. This fear and the policy it has birthed speak volumes about the unfortunate changes in my country’s mindset that have occurred since 2001. Instead of being a beacon of learning to the world, America has become a dragon sitting deep in a dark cave, zealously guarding a hoard of books that it is unable to read.