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Posted at 04:40 PM ET, 10/19/2012

Is Minnesota cracking down on MOOCs?

This post has been updated.

By now many have heard of a company called Coursera, which offers free online courses from prominent universities to people around the world, no strings attached.

Except, it turns out, people from Minnesota.

The Chronicle of Higher Education points out a proviso that just popped up in Coursera’s terms of service.

“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 is Minnesota really trying to scuttle the online higher ed revolution? Is the state cracking down on massive open online courses, a.k.a MOOCs?

About 1,686,279 people, give or take several, had registered for Coursera as of Friday afternoon. I’m guessing that at least a few are from Minnesota.

I called the Minnesota Office of Higher Education to ask about this. An official who answered the phone did not wish to be quoted, but she indicated that someone would get back to me shortly with a full explanation.

And I just received a copy of a letter from George R. Roedler Jr., manager of institutional registration and licensing for the Minnesota agency, to Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera. It’s dated Aug. 17. See bottom of this post for the full text.

I am trying to reach Coursera, and will update this post if I hear back from them.

Meantime, here’s some informed speculation:

Many states, including Minnesota, have requirements for online universities to register with them before they can offer courses to state residents. Those rules aim to protect consumers from online education scams.

But the operative word there is consumer, which implies a person who is paying something to get something of value. Those who sign up for MOOCs, by definition, aren’t paying a cent. They also aren’t, in general, getting any credits from the universities that offer the courses — although this week the University of Texas system announced that it plans to offer courses via the nonprofit MOOC platform called edX that could yield college credit. That platform is a joint venture of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with UC Berkeley also a participant.

It is certainly possible that in the future more MOOC courses will yield tangible value in the form of credits for those who complete them. Already, there is growing talk among other institutions of offering credit to students who complete a high-quality MOOC from a big-name school.

Perhaps Minnesota is anticipating this next development in the revolution. It will be interesting to see how states deal with MOOC credits. It is also possible that Minnesota’s communication with Coursera was simply a heads up that the company’s activities are being watched — not a regulatory threat.

Meantime, a free online learning platform launched recently by two George Mason University economists also has taken note of Minnesota’s assertion of state oversight.

Alex Tabarrok, of GMU, wrote this on the site MarginalRevolution.com, referring to the platform he and fellow GMU professor Tyler Cowen call MRUniversity.

Marginal Revolution University has been Banned in Minnesota!

Minnesota has banned MRUniversity and other online education services from providing content to Minnesota residents. This seems like a joke but it is not from The Onion. Coursera, one of the larger players in this field, has rewritten its terms of service to prohibit Minnesota residents from taking its courses. ...

Tyler and I wish to be perfectly clear: unlike Coursera, we will not shut down MRU to the residents of Minnesota. We are prepared to defend our rights under the First Amendment to teach the good people of Minnesota all about the Solow Model, water policy in Africa, and the economics of garlic–even if we have to do so from a Minnesota jail!”

What follows is the Aug. 17 letter from Minnesota to Coursera.

Re: Online Courses

Dear Mr. Ng:

Thank you for your email and for speaking with me on August 15, 2012. Based on your email and our conversation it is the understanding of this office that Coursera facilitates the offering of online courses that have been developed by a number of universities and/or their faculty. It is further the understanding of this office that Coursera is not a college or university and does not offer or make available its own courses, degrees, or programs and is not therefore subject to Registration pursuant to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71 the Minnesota Private and Out-of-State Public Postsecondary Education Act.

It is the position of this office, however, that the colleges and universities that developed and are providing the courses to Coursera are subject to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71 the Minnesota Private and Out-of-State Public Postsecondary Education Act and that they would all be required to Register with this office if Minnesota residents are allowed to enroll in the classes facilitated by Coursera.

Coursera has proposed that the “Terms of Service Agreement” that users agree to in order to have access to the courses facilitated by Coursera be amended by adding the following statement:

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 above statement allows students to self-certify their residency for purposes of enrolling or not enrolling in Coursera classes, and is satisfactory to this office.

Please note, I have added the word online to the second line of the “self-certify” statement above for the purposes of clarifying what it applied to.

This letter is not to be construed as diminishing the obligations of the Coursera, the colleges and universities that provide courses to Coursera, or the Minnesota Office Higher Education with regard to any undisclosed purposes or activities which may be subject to regulation by the State of Minnesota, including requiring any of the colleges or universities to Register pursuant to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71.

If you should have any questions about this matter please feel free to call me at ... your convenience.

Yours truly,

George R. Roedler, Jr.

Manager, Institutional Registration & Licensing

By  |  04:40 PM ET, 10/19/2012

 
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