Minnesota Attempts to Ban Free Online Education Using Antiquated Law

This post was updated at 20:24:00 CST on October 18

Hats off to the great state of Minnesota whose Office of Higher Education recently sent out letters in an attempt to ban Massive Online Open Classrooms from the state. The main group asked to leave is Coursera, a company founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, that partners with top universities around the country to offer free classes online. Minnesota cites a law—Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71)—which requires any educational institution to receive permission to offer classes in the state.

In response, Coursera updates its terms of service to include the following notice: “If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.”

So if you live in Minnesota and you want to take advantage of free online education, it behooves you to cross the border into North Dakota or Wisconsin to do your homework.

The law is 20 years old and mostly intended for degree-granting institutions. In the case of a brick-and-mortar university it of course makes sense that they would need to be accredited and accepted by the state to offer degrees to students. But Coursera doesn’t have a physical building in Minnesota, nor does it offer degrees of any kind. There is also no way for Minnesota to really prevent people in state boundaries to not use Coursera—unless they decide to censor the web, which is ludicrous even for their standards.

Until this is sorted out, it’s best for the curious citizens of Minnesota, who would like to take advantage of the tremendous offerings of knowledge out there, to just use the Internet for Farmville, sexting, and Facebook.

Update: The Minnesota Office of Higher Education has changed its stance in a response to the large online backlash. Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education now says:

Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera…. When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances. Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.

Reason rules after all.


The Chronicle of Higher Education

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