Old Regulations Strike Again: Minnesota Says It's Against The Law To Offer Open Courseware Class Without Approval

from the oh-come-on dept

Every day, it seems, we hear of yet another story of silly out-of-date regulations, which may have had a reasonable purpose initially, getting in the way of perfectly legitimate innovation. For example, there’s been a massive growth in “open courseware” or open education programs, that put various educational classes online for everyone to benefit. They’re not designed to replace the degrees of college, but rather to just help people learn. One of the biggest ones, Coursera, recently told people in Minnesota that they could no longer take Coursera classes, due to ridiculously outdated Minnesota regulations:

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.

The key regulation here, 136A.6a is clearly about stopping questionable degree mills from being used in Minnesota. It specifically refers to “academic degrees”:

The legislature has found and hereby declares that the availability of legitimate courses and programs leading to academic degrees offered by responsible private not-for-profit and for-profit institutions of postsecondary education and the existence of legitimate private colleges and universities are in the best interests of the people of this state. The legislature has found and declares that the state can provide assistance and protection for persons choosing private institutions and programs, by establishing policies and procedures to assure the authenticity and legitimacy of private postsecondary education institutions and programs. The legislature has also found and declares that this same policy applies to any private and public postsecondary educational institution located in another state or country which offers or makes available to a Minnesota resident any course, program or educational activity which does not require the leaving of the state for its completion.

The other law just says that the attorney general and the courts can shut down anyone who violates the law — which is what they threatened to do with Coursera.

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota.

But that seems to be a willful misreading of the regulation (which seems silly in the first place). Coursera isn’t a degree mill. It’s not about earning the degree, it’s about actually learning. Minnesota’s interpretation of the law is fairly ridiculous. It basically means that anyone who wants to access online educational material in Minnesota is limited by the state determining what it considers okay.

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Comments on “Old Regulations Strike Again: Minnesota Says It's Against The Law To Offer Open Courseware Class Without Approval”

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Anonymous Coward says:

for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

Shouldn’t be a problem. I’m pretty close to the State of Disbelief reading this, and whoever is enforcing this ridiculous statue must be joining students from everywhere in the State of Confusion. I’m not sure how far these are from the State of Minnesota.

The Real Michael says:

If you live in Minnesota, you can only learn from state-sponsored educational programs. (Why did that just sound communist?)

If someone wants to teach/learn, what business is it of the state? Suppose you wanted to hold an open (free) music seminar in Minnesota. Why should you need the state to give you permission? What’s next, disable all educational videos and online tutorials?

redrum says:


1. I didn’t know about Coursera, thanks for bringing it to my attention, I’ve already signed up.

2. I can’t believe that instead of offering to “assure the authenticity and legitimacy” of the site and its courses, they went right for the Shut-em-down route. Typical bureaucratic mentality. They should be promoting the site in their schools fer crissake.

Jeff (profile) says:

taking some action

Thanks, Mike for the heads up and article. As a life long resident of MN, I am ashamed of our state leaders for allowing this crap. I just blasted out some messages for my district senator and reps. I plan on getting a few more out soon. I encourage any MN readers to do the same.

I wonder when our great leaders will start to censor Khan Academy?


AC2 says:

Did Coursera really have to comply?

They are not charging money. They are not offering any course credit. They are not really a university.

So, although I can understand that Coursera would not want to waste time and money in a legal battle, I don’t understand why they couldn’t have told the Minnesota Office of Higher Education where they can stick their notice (politely, of course).

If it’s non-commercial, wouldn’t the First Amendment apply?

Can anyone explain how Minnesota possibly has a leg to stand on here?

Danny (profile) says:

Re: Re: Did Coursera really have to comply?

Cant see how the commerce clause is relevant. If they aren’t charging money, then this is clearly a first mend meant issue. The state cannot make law that would limit academic speech. Academic speech is not only protected speech, it is very speech that merits extra consideration for protection (as does political speech). IMHO.

Lack of protection of academic speech creates a slippery slope toward the government declaring which knowledge is legitimate, and which is forbidden to teach. It would be like living in Galileo’s Rome, or in Rick Perry’s Texas. And I don’t think we want anything like either in today’s America.

Anonymous Coward says:

I understand where they are coming from but....

I do understand where they are coming from, as in the 90’s where I lived there were many places that opened up that provided “degrees”. A few of my friends went to these places for a degree, and were done in as little as 3 months for a 12 month course that was funded by a student loan. Now if you got the same degree at a university or college you were looking at a 2-4 year course. My friends all agreed that all they got was a piece of paper and debt load from these places. Now I know this may not be the same as the place referenced, but this could be why there is that silly law.

StillNoCouch (profile) says:

Yeah, I took action too

Ditto Jeff above.

I fired off a few fact-filled communications to my State Senators and Representatives as well.

Not to let a good pun go by without a nod, I couldn’t resist suggesting that members of the State’s Department of Higher Education might benefit from some of the more legally-inclined courses offered through Coursera.

I’ve been taking courses actively for the last year or so.

Looks like I might just have to go back to wasting hours upon hours on Minecraft or FaceBook rather than learning about things like Artificial Intelligence (another pun), Art History … and all of those other Weapons of Mass Education that my Dear State seeks to abolish.

IRONY WARNING: But … I’m sure the folks at the Higher Education Department have reasons for believing that MIT, Princeton, Brown, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Berklee, Columbia and the others are just fly-by-night degree mills who are trying to take my money by offering me a free educational experience.

Karen Lobuchar says:

Re: Get Smart

Mark, the State of Minnesota isn’t blocking anyone.

There’s no technical limitation that they’re putting into place.

They’re simply telling Coursera that its member universities (Stanford, Michigan, etc.) are violating this particular law, and that those universities will have to pay MN if they want to offer their courses through Coursera to Minnesotans.

I’m glad this issue is getting some attention, because the law as designed to protect against diploma mills and scam for-profit schools is a very good one.

But it’s a very bad law if it’s twisted and bent to combat what Coursera is currently doing.

Shon Gale (profile) says:

Awesome site. I am sharing with everyone.

WOW! Thanks for doing the story on this totally awesome site. We need a directory of web sites by category on the web. I would have never found this if you hadn’t done the story. WOW Classes on ALgorithms Part I from Princeton. Who cares about Minnesota?
I digress. My point to this post is:
‘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.’
Nowhere on Coursera’s site did I see any mention of the word ‘University’ except in the list of Universities supporting them. Where did they get this? Minnesota scared of a little free thinking?? Huh?? Little competition gonna hurt them? Sure glad I don’t live there.

TJ says:

Article isn't accurate

I wrote to Tricia, and her statement does not even apply to Coursera. The OP may have jumped the gun on this one…

Thank you for your email which has been directed to me for response.

The article you saw in the Chronicle and resulting blogs or publications are not as accurate as they could be.

Coursera was not told that they could not offer courses to Minnesota residents. Coursera is not a school and does not itself offer any courses. The course are offered by a number of colleges and universities through Coursera. The courses are curriculum from the schools, taught by the schools’ faculty, student support or feedback is from the school or its faculty member, and any certificate of completion is from the school.

Coursera, not being a school, is not subject to any regulation or oversight by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (MOHE). Coursera was told this but put the statement on their web site anyway. In addition MOHE does not regulate what students can or cannot do, and certainly cannot prohibit Minnesota students from signing up for classes if they want to, even when a school is operating improperly.

Colleges and universities that offer online classes to Minnesota residents where the student does not leave the State of Minnesota for a majority of the courses are required to Register with MOHE pursuant to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71.

Anonymous Coward says:

UPDATE: Minnesota Office of Higher Education Official Responds

Slate has an update on this story, with a response from an official from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

?Free Online Education Is Now Illegal in Minnesota? by Will Oremus, Oct. 18. Scroll down to where it sez, ?Update, Oct. 19, 10:58 a.m.?

George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher education, clarifies?.?.?.?.

The law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions?.?.?.?.

The thing is, no one is wasting their money on Coursera courses, because they’re free. (Yes, says Roedler, but they could still be wasting their time.)

Did you catch that? There, in the parentheses? If you’re from Minnesota, the MOHE wants to protect you from wasting time.

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