Minnesota has embarrassingly enforced a seemingly regressive stance on free online education. The Office of Higher Education has asked educational startup Coursera to back off from offering its online courses to Minnesota residents, else pay a registration and hefty annual renewal fee. Why would it do so? To align with an antiquated law requiring that colleges and universities get the state government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders.
This seems to me like this a perfect example of a law with good intentions going awry. Of course we want regulations around the quality of education being offered in the state, to ensure that educational institutions are credible and not duping the public by disseminating nonsense as knowledge and awarding degrees based on impoverished curriculums (see Liberty University). But applying such a law to an institution that does not offer degrees, but simply free courses on the internet, is lunacy. In fact, it seems to border on an infringement on speech.
The manager of Institutional Registration and Licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education has defended their position by saying the following, as summarized by Slate.com:
“..this office's issue isn't with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it's Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.”
As a result of this action of this injunction by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Coursera has updated its Terms of Service with the following paragraph:
Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. 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.
The reality of this situation is that no Minnesotan is likely to get arrested for taking courses on Coursera and violating the Terms of Service. One has to ask, though, whether creating a prohibitive educational culture is helpful to any degree, or antithetical to social progress.
This is a pity. In an era where the cost of education has skyrocketed and created a student debt crisis, we ought to be promoting the transfer of free knowledge, not curtailing it. I hope the State sees the folly of their position and reforms this law to exempt free course-based websites/institutions. You can send the Office a message here.