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By Nicole Bailey Contributing Writer November 2, 2014

Coursera, currently the largest massive open online course (MOOC) provider, has 104 partner institutions, more than half of which are American. Although about 75% of its MOOCs are in English, over 70% of its 3 million registered students are outside of the United States from a total of more than 220 different countries. MOOCs are a revolutionary foreign policy tool with an unprecedented reach to international youth. Although the U.S. government has embraced MOOCs as an educational tool, its political sanctions threaten to unnecessarily condition their scope and undercut their benefits.

MOOCs were designed to expand academic learning and share valuable content traditionally only accessible in a physical (and often expensive) institution of learning with a broader and more diverse audience. However, as more and more universities lead the charge to bring their most popular courses to the Internet, more and more foreign audiences are taking advantage of a privileged opportunity few in many parts of the world can ever hope to enjoy: an American education.

MOOCs have come under criticism by the higher education establishment in the United States for their relative lack of assigned work, overemphasis on lecture videos, low completion rates, and inability to replace the personal relationship between student and teacher found in the conventional classroom. However, their popularity among students outside the United States, as illustrated by the introductory statistics, is enormous. Regardless of the above criticisms, MOOCs must be understood as a powerful foreign policy tool, if for no other reason than the large international audiences of youth that they reach.

One of the most surprising positive externalities of the MOOC revolution has been the degree of cultural exchange between students. Public diplomacy practitioners have not failed to recognize the enormous potential of MOOCs in this regard. In August 2013, the U.S. Department of State launched MOOC Camp, a means of facilitating dialogue on free, open online classes around the world. In its first year, MOOC Camp covered 205 total courses in more than 65 countries for over 4,500 students.

The United States is also very interested in encouraging international students to come to American universities to help boost the domestic economy and create stronger people-to-people relationships in the long term. As a result, the State Department markets MOOCs as “a chance to test-drive a U.S. higher education experience” and supports a course on the American college application process. It is too early to say whether MOOCs have a significant impact on the number of international students completing traditional degree programs in the United States. Over the next years and decades, analytics offices in the federal government, American universities, and companies in the private sector should closely follow and study the emerging data.

Not every region of the world has a dependable Internet connection yet, but the technological landscape is changing rapidly. Even in Africa, the region with the lowest rate of internet penetration as a percentage of the total population at 21%, there has been a growth rate of 5,220% in the past 14 years. To further accelerate the expansion of access, Coursera has partnered with the U.S. Department of State to provide “learning hubs” in developing countries where students can take free courses using a reliable Internet connection. The learning hubs also provide in-person teachers and discussion facilitators to supplement the students’ online education.

Despite the fact that the progress of MOOCs and online learning is a success story in most parts of the world, the trend is being stifled in specific areas. As a testament to the global communication potential of MOOCs, students in some countries do not have access to free and open courses online. Some countries place an outright ban on MOOC providers. Others prefer to restrict specific courses that threaten to challenge the government’s narrative or cause social unrest. Even the United States has played a role in restricting MOOC access to individuals in heavily sanctioned countries, including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and (briefly) Syria.

Almost all MOOC restrictions are enforced via an IP address block, which tech-savvy youth can sidestep with a virtual private network (VPN) connection. However, these policies have drawn sharp criticism from human rights advocates, MOOC companies, and affected citizens who say they send a signal that a country’s people should be punished for the behavior of their unelected regime and that universal education is not a priority. The top comments on the Coursera blog post announcing the restriction help illustrate the frustration experienced by ordinary students:

Coursera Comments

The United States should exempt online education tools from sanction requirements and keep its political pressure focused on regimes at a higher level. Of course, the U.S. government imposes sanctions in large part to protect its legitimate policy and security concerns. Some might argue that MOOCs and education are akin to humanitarian aid and should be treated similarly. Even humanitarian aid is not exempt from the stringent requirements of political sanctions, an operational reality that has been applied in cases as diverse as North Korea, Palestine, and Haiti.

Yet there is a fundamental difference that separates the two: humanitarian aid can be usurped by the target regime. There is a concern that fuel, cement, or especially money that was originally intended for suffering people may find its way into the coffers of the offending political leadership. However, there is no similar threat with educational materials. As the comments above illustrate, there is no MOOC on “How to Build an Atomic Bomb.” It is very difficult to conceive how Jazz or Archaeology or Renaissance History or Shakespearean Literature could possibly harm U.S. interests. MOOCs are a valuable public diplomacy tool among populations in sanctioned countries for the same reasons they are so valuable everywhere else in the world.

In addition, if America recognizes MOOCs as a positive public diplomacy tool to promote mutual understanding between peoples and further foreign policy interests, it must also realize the potential for harm. Wherever an American presence is lacking in the public information space, there are a host of competitors waiting to fill the gap. Rivals abound for MOOCs in not only western European nations that likely have similar policies, but also in countries like Russia whose strategic interests often do not align with those of the United States and could easily capitalize on an uncompetitive MOOC market in sanctioned areas.

So far, the United States government has successfully leveraged its educational pre-eminence, its human capital, its technological resources, and its institutional partnerships to dominate the MOOC market and reap the public diplomacy benefits. MOOCs help share American culture, increase mutual understanding between peoples, invest in valuable human capital worldwide, and promote U.S. schools. In order to consolidate its gains and stay ahead in the digital learning revolution, the United States must be the leading advocate for the students who make its next foreign policy tool possible—no matter where in the world they may be.

Nicole Bailey is a first-year student in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Global Communication program, concentrating in IT and Middle East Studies. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law. She can be reached via Twitter at @nsunebailey.

Internet Map” by The Opte Project, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.