Slate has given the grand prize for creative use of government to stifle innovation to the state of Minnesota. Minnesota has seen fit to crack down on free online education. The state claims that some free courses being offered are illegal.
Slate is an online news magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Minnesota has notified California-based Coursera that offering its free online courses to state residents is illegal. Coursera is a for-profit company launched by two computer science professors at Stanford University. The company partners with top-tier universities to offer the free courses.
Although the courses are free, various services would involve fees. For example, there would be fees for a certificate of completion, and perhaps charges for assessment of perfomance etc. Some of the possibilities are outlined here.
A policy analyst at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said that the state is simply enforcing a law that requires colleges to get the government's permission in order to offer instruction within state borders. The analyst did not know whether companies similar to Coursera such as edX and Udacity were also given the same warning.
The Chronicle of Education wonders how the law could be enforced: “It’s unclear how the law could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web.” Also, Coursera and similar companies do not offer degrees. However, they probably will offer certificates of completion. Coursera dutifully gives notice to Minnesota users: 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. George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education insists that the issue is solely with universities that offer courses through its website. State law prohibits any degree-granting institutions from officering courses in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. The fee can be a few hundred to several thousand dollars and costs $1,200 each year for renewal. Obviously a company that offers free courses would not want to pay these fees. In partnering with Coursera, such prestigious universities as Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Melbourne are all violating Minnesota law.
Roedler said :"It's not like we're sending the police out if somebody signs up online. It's just that the school is operating contrary to state law." Roedler said that the law is designed to protect students in Minnesota from wasting money on degrees from substandard universities. However, none of the institutions involved are substandard, quite the opposite. If the courses are free, money is hardly wasted. Although no doubt money will be spent, if students wish to have completion certificates etc. Roedler responded that students could still waste their time. Surely that is a matter for the student to decide.
Roedler thought that companies such as Coursera would cooperate and register with the state. Apparently, he has no concern about the expenses this would add when the company is already offering courses free. To put roadblocks in the way of offering free online education does not seem to further education in Minnesota nor would it anywhere else.
I have the sneaking suspicion that the "for-profit" companies offering these free courses will very soon need to find ways of raising revenue to cover their expenses and allow for some profit. The 'for free" aspect may be a way of enticing students into the programs. Even so, given the cost of a college education these days, it may be much cheaper to obtain a certificate of completion of courses from highly-rated institutions than to pay tens of thousands to pursue a degree.