Minnesota Reverses ‘Ban’ on Coursera, Free Online Education

Common sense made a much-needed appearance in Minnesota as the state's Office of Higher Education announced that it did not, in fact, plan to prevent one of the largest providers of free online courses – Coursera – from offering its free services to the state's residents.

Last week the Office of Higher Education informed the company that it could no longer service students in Minnesota because its failure to register with the state's education authorities put it in violation of a decades-old law that aimed to protect Minnesotans from paying for fraudulent degrees. The fact that Coursera neither offered degree programs nor charged for any of its courses seemed to have been lost on whomever made the decision to ban the company. This warning led Coursera to alter its terms of service to prevent Minnesota residents or students who planned to spend substantial time in the state from enrolling in any massive online open courses offered by the company.

The change was first reported in Chronicle of Higher Education and then picked up by various news outlets around the country, who pressured Minnesota officials to explain their reasoning. It didn't take long before the state was rolling back its decision.

Earlier this week the office issues a clarification via email distributed to several news organizations, including The Washington Post:

"Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they're free," said Larry Pogemiller, director of the office. "No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera."

Pogemiller, according to the e-mail, said a 20-year-old statute requiring institutional registration clearly did not envision free online, not-for-credit offerings.

Pogemiller further explained that the office would seek legal redress during the next Legislative session scheduled to start next January. He said that he will work with both lawmakers and the governor to rewrite the law to better square with the needs and circumstances of the modern-day academic and online education environment.

Will Oremus of Slate.com's Future Tense blog, who said that Minnesota's original decision deserved a grand prize in for the "most creative use of government to stifle innovation," praised both the quick turnaround and the government's general responsiveness to the backlash generated by its original stance on the issue. He said that Pogemiller's willingness to confront the issue head-on and to seek a solution that would recognize the higher education landscape has been irrevocably changed by the online revolution was an admirable and forward-thinking move.

10 23, 2012
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