Facing Backlash, Minnesota Decides to Allow Free Online Courses After All

Princeton and Stanford can rest easy now that Minnesota higher-education officials have backed away from threats to track down dozens of universities like them for offering free online courses in their state without permission.

On Friday, just hours after an administrator in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said the state planned to demand registration and fees from universities that were offering the noncredit classes through the online course provider Coursera, the director of his office struck a more conciliatory tone.

Technically, the dozens of universities offering courses through Coursera were violating a 20-year-old Minnesota law that requires universities to get permission from the state first, the director, Lawrence Pogemiller, said.

But after his office’s tough stance prompted a flurry of complaints and critical blog posts, Mr. Pogemiller said, essentially, Never mind.

“Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free,” he said in a written statement. “No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.”

In an interview late Friday, Mr. Pogemiller conceded that the 20-year-old statute didn’t envision today’s crop of free online courses. After reconsidering the matter, he thought, “Should  Penn State have to pay $1,000 to put a course online that Minnesota residents can access for free?” Probably not, he said, although it’s up to state lawmakers to update the law.

“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,” he wrote.  “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

But that may not be the end of the matter. If, down the road, Coursera starts charging for the courses or students can earn credit or certificates for them, the state might reassess its approach, he said.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle on Saturday that Coursera would keep the caution to Minnesota residents on its Web site until she heard directly from higher-education officials in that state, probably on Monday.

“Assuming their position is consistent with our understanding of the statement issued, then we are very pleased and grateful that the state of Minnesota has had the opportunity to re-evaluate the statute and reconsider its relevance to this very new situation,” she wrote. “Their new interpretation will allow all students from the state of Minnesota to have full, unrestricted access to some of the best courses from the best universities, for free.”

Earlier on Friday, the Minnesota higher-education administrator most closely involved in the brouhaha said his office had never asked Coursera to post a notice warning Minnesota residents to stay away or study outside state borders.

George R. Roedler Jr., manager of institutional registration and licensing for the higher-education office, said the state’s problem wasn’t with Coursera, but with all of the universities that are offering free courses through the provider without authorization to operate in the state. He wanted Coursera to notify each of its participating universities to remind them about their obligations to register if they wanted Minnesotans to sign up.

“That didn’t work out so well,” he said, so his office decided to begin contacting the universities directly.

The rationale he outlined illustrates how convoluted states’ attempts to regulate free online courses can be. Asked how his office and its 2.4-member staff planned to enforce the law, Mr. Roedler said the office was in the process of contacting each of the universities offering online courses in the state to remind them that they need to register and pay fees if they wanted Minnesotans to take their courses. Fees can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. If the institutions refused, and Minnesotans were signing up, his office would notify the university’s accreditors that they were violating state law.

“The statute doesn’t exclude free or noncredit courses,” he said.

He said universities that offered free courses had a responsibility to know where each of their students lived and to enroll only students whose states authorized the university to teach there. Asked how they would do that when courses sometimes draw thousands, or even tens of thousands of students, Mr. Roedler answered, “That’s the university’s problem.”

The law’s purpose is to protect Minnesotans from wasting their money (or in this case, time, he says) on substandard courses. And while Minnesotans probably don’t need to be protected from free courses like the University of Pennsylvania’s “Greek and Roman Mythology” or Stanford University’s “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” courses from lesser-known institutions are also being offered, and students may still have unrealistic ideas about whether they will eventually get credit for taking them, he said.

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