Minnesota’s archaic online ed ban raising questions in Minnesota

UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, has responded to the controversy, saying that “No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.” When the legislature convenes in January, he said he plans to work with elected officials to update the statute to accommodate free, not-for-credit online courses.

Minnesota’s bizarre ban on online education isn’t just rankling pundits across the Web, it’s understandably raising questions from the local tech community too.

This week, the Chronicle on Higher Education reported that online education startup Coursera had been informed by the state’s Office of Higher Education that it’s not allowed to offer courses to Minnesota residents and that letters had been sent to the startup’s university partners informing them of the violation.

“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 that class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota,” the company said.

Apparently a 20-year-old policy, which applies to online as well as brick-and-mortar institutions, requires universities offering instruction to Minnesota residents to receive authorization from the state.  A policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education told the Chronicle that the law was intended to provide “consumer protection.” Slate was later told that it’s not Coursera violating Minnesota law but its partner universities, who must pay Minnesota a registration fee to provide courses in state.

Considering that Coursera isn’t actually selling courses but providing them for free, and that it isn’t a degree-granting university, the application of the policy makes little sense.  Instead of protecting residents, the decades-old policy is just preventing them from accessing free, open courseware. It’s also unclear if this policy extends to other open online platforms, such as edX and Udacity, but given their partnerships with universities, it seems that the ban would apply to them as well.

Andrew Wittenborg, the director of communications for the Minnesota High Tech Association, a group that represents hundreds of tech companies and organizations in the state, said the group is looking into the matter to see if the 20-year-old law should be reconsidered.

“We pride ourselves on making sure that technology and innovation is at the forefront, especially in education, so it does raise some questions for us,” he said.

Image from Arcady via Shutterstock.