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Minnesota relents on banning free online education programs

Minnesota authorities reversed a much-criticized decision to outlaw free, online education throughout the state.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education ultimately decided not to require registration for massive open online courses.

“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 MOHE, in a written statement. “No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.”

California-based Coursera facilitates online courses free of charge to anyone with an internet connection. Partner organizations, such as Stanford University, Princeton, and the University of Michigan, supply the content and instructors.

It is these partner organizations that had violated state law, according to the office’s original determination. George Roedler, a registration and licensing officer at MOHE, explained that the universities offering courses through Coursera were not registered to teach in the state.

“Our statute requires that any college or university that offers an online course or degree or program to Minnesota residents, where the resident does not leave the state when taking that course or program, to register with our office,” he said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.

In order to register, Coursera’s partner organizations would have needed to provide information on the courses, such as who is teaching them and what the curriculum contains. They would also have to pay a fee.

“There are also fees involved depending on how many degrees or programs they want to offer to Minnesota residents,” said Roedler.

Slate reported that the fees ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars, plus a $1,200 annual renewal fee.

Roedler viewed the registration process as a form of consumer protection for Minnesotans that stops students from throwing away money on scam programs.

“It is a way for states to do consumer protection for the residents of the state,” he said.

But because the online courses are free, and do not award degrees to those who take them, many educators disagreed that consumers needed government protection from massive open online courses.

“I would think there’s a more reasonable interpretation which says the law only applies to people selling some sort of product for credit within the state,” said Tyler Cowen, co-founder of Marginal Revolution University and professor of economics at George Mason University, in an interview with The DC News Foundation.

Cowen’s own massive open online course — Marginal Revolution University, which he co-founded with fellow George Mason economics professor Alex Tabarrok — is also illegal under MOHE’s interpretation of the statute. But Cowen and Tabarrok refused to shut down services to students in Minnesota.

The Constitution protects their right to provide the courses, said Cowen.

“We view it as a First Amendment issue,” he said.

Tabarrok noted that the only other government to ban MRU was Pakistan, which eliminated all YouTube videos earlier this year.

“We know, however, that Pakistan is a highly repressive society where there are few rights of free speech and local authorities try to prevent people from broad-based learning,” he wrote in an e-mail to The DC News Foundation. “But who would have thought that Minnesota would be the second place to ban MRU!”

Coursera’s response to MOHE’s complaints was to add a “Notice for Minnesota Users” to its Terms of Service agreement. It warns Minnesota residents to either avoid the courses entirely, or go outside the physical state:

“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 backlash quickly caught up with Pogemiller, who took back the office’s initial stance and granted Coursera permission to offer unregistered online courses.

“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,” said Pogemiller, in a written statement. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

Clearing this legal hurdle is a good sign for these types of courses, which Tabarrok predicts will be valuable tools for improving access to education around the world.

“We want to reach and teach as many people as possible,” he wrote. “Online education gives us an incredible opportunity to bring education to people who have never had the opportunity for a quality education, and it means a greatly reduced cost of education to students in the United States.”

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