2nd NOTE: According to Slate.com, the state has reconsidered their stance on free online education, and will comply with legislation already practiced in other states.
NOTE: Minnesota wants the participating universities giving Coursera free lectures to pay an annual fee to the state that will allow MN to deem the programs not a waste of resident’s time.
Since the rise of online education many companies have stepped to the forefront of free online learning. Most notably, Khan Academy, AcademicEarth, Udacity, edX and Coursera. These sites provide free lectures from top-tier schools such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard. While they do not provide a degree from these schools, they typically provide some kind of credit through their site.
There have been many success stories, such as a recent article by Derrick Harris of GigaOM points out, specifically from Coursera and their machine learning lectures provided by co-founder Andrew Ng. The idea of free education is enticing, especially in states such as Minnesota where student debt is running rampant and the state now ranks third in highest student debt accrued in the United States.
So why would the state’s Office of Higher Education deem free online education illegal? Because of a 20-year-old statute that deems it necessary for any degree-granting institution to first receive authorization from the State of Minnesota before educating their population. Here is the catch: the Minnesota Office of Higher Education only sent a letter to Coursera. Coursera doesn’t even offer degrees, and there is no evidence other online learning sites are being targeted .
The biggest question revolving around this law is how it will be enforced. Is the State going to monitor activity through your ISP? Will your ISP give the State that information? No word as of yet, but it could prove very difficult for Minnesota to even know who is trying to learn. Currently Coursera has put up a notice which reads as follows:
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.
So far it seems the State will hold true to the law, but it will be interesting to read all the backlash this law will obviously provoke. In an age where you can watch YouTube videos about pretty much anything, why not allow citizens to freely teach themselves valuable skills? Especially when the University of Minnesota is trying to position itself within the online learning community.