Recently, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education sent letters to all postsecondary institutions and providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the state, demanding them to cease their activities. One of the providers was Coursera, an online service that offers free courses to anyone around the world. They were told by the Office of Higher Education that they were not welcome in the state or their universities because they did not receive permission to operate there, a requirement of a law enacted at least 20 years ago to ensure consumer protection for degree pursuing students. However, Coursera is neither a degree nor credit-granting program, so they were not sure why they were targeted.

Despite any clear way that the law could be enforced, since the content is freely available online, Coursera decided to comply and update its Terms of Service to include a notice for Minnesota users:

  • 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.

Several days later, an administrator in the Office of Higher Education announced plans to demand registration and fees from the dozens of universities that were offering non-credit Coursera courses. However, their office was soon bombarded with complaints and critical blog posts. Not long after that the office backtracked and changed their stance, allowing Coursera, free online course providers, and MOOCs to continue operating within the state.

In an interview, Lawrence Pogemiller, the director of the Office of Higher Education, acknowledged that the 20-year old statue did not accurately predict today’s selection of free online courses. He openly questioned whether Pennsylvania State University should have to pay $1,000 to put a course online that Minnesota residents can access for free. His own answer was that they probably should not be required to pay a fee, but it was up to state lawmakers to update the law. However, if Coursera began to charge for their courses or allow students to earn credits or certificates, the state would have to readdress its approach on the matter.

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