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Minnesota denies Coursera

Posted on Oct 22, 2012

On October 18th, Katherine Mangan, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, reported that it had just been discovered that the state of Minnesota “has informed Coursera that it is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there.”

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s office, “said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota.” In an email, Grimes explained that this was not an effort to push Coursera out of the state, but rather that this requirement has existed for many years in order to “provide consumer protection for students.”

It is clear, then, that the state of Minnesota is attempting to protect its citizens, and not discriminate against Coursera or discourage online learning. However, it makes little sense to expect Coursera to abide by this law when Coursera is effectively offering content that is similar to what could be found on YouTube, Khan Academy, or Wikipedia, the difference being that Coursera’s content is delivered by qualified professors.

Will Oremus, writing for Slate, revealed more about the controversy. Oremus wrote that George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, had attempted to clarify the situation by saying that “the issue isn’t with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website.” It turns out that Minnesota requires degree-granting institutions to register with the state, a process that can cost several thousand dollars in some instance, including a $1,200 annual renewal fee. Echoing Tricia Grimes’ email, Roedler said that “the law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions,” and that while Coursera is free, individuals could still be wasting their time.

Oremus pointed out that it makes little sense for any university affiliated with Coursera to pay registration fees, considering each university is offering free courses that are entirely optional. If all states maintained laws similar to those in Minnesota, it is unlikely that online learning programs would ever manage to get off the ground.

Admittedly, it is hard to say how Minnesota could enforce its law, due to the nature of Coursera courses and the relative anonymity offered by the Internet. Luckily, none of that is an issue because approximately a day later, Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education issued a statement that essentially gave Coursera permission to continue operations within the state.

While this issue was short-lived, it reveals something important. It seems unlikely that the state of Minnesota would have reconsidered its position, had there not been a sizeable backlash on the Internet. To that extent, it is important that as many individuals as possible are familiar with online learning and the benefits it brings, as the support of the populace could be key in making online learning not just an educational reality, but a political reality.

 Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

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