For about a day last week in Minnesota, residents who wanted to take part in massively open online courses, or MOOCs, through free online course provider Coursera were told it was illegal. The statement, made by the state's Office of Higher Education, was quickly rescinded a day later, following a wave of backlash on blogs and media outlets around the Internet.
The story broke last Thursday when the The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article explaining that Coursera had been contacted by the Office of Higher Education in Minnesota back in July to be informed that it was violating a roughly 20-year-old law that prevented universities from providing online courses to Minnesota residents without explicit permission from the state. A disclaimer appeared within Coursera's Terms of Service:
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.
In The Chronicle article, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller expressed confusion as to why the California-based startup was being targeted, as the law seemed to focus on degree-granting institutions (which Coursera is not) rather than providers of free, open courseware.
Officials from the state later chimed in that the problem wasn't with Coursera so much as with the universities, such as Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Melbourne, that offered courses through the online platform, according to Slate blogger Will Oremus.
Either way, on Friday, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education Lawrence Pogemiller recanted the state's stance on the issue, encouraging Minnesota residents to take advantage of free educational opportunities online. He told reporters and citizens in an emailed statement that he would work with legislators and the governor to update the law to include modern-day technological opportunities like Coursera when the legislature reconvenes this year, according to a follow-up article by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
But the flap may not be completely over, with comments from George R. Roedler Jr., manager of institutional registration and licensing for the Office of Higher Education in Minnesota, suggesting that the law's basic premiss requires universities offering courses to Minnesota residents to register with the state and pay certain amounts of fees, regardless of whether those courses are free, according to The Chronicle article.
All of this points to an overall confusion and discomfort in the higher education community with the rise of MOOCs. The Minnesota state law that sparked the controversy clearly did not anticipate a world where students in the state could have access to full courses for free on the Internet, and perhaps many states will be struggling—like Minnesota—to re-evaluate and assess their laws surrounding the distribution and licensing of post-secondary courses for their students.
At last week's Open Education Conference, the ban was chided by attendees as an absurd attempt to apply outdated laws to modern-day situations and ultimately restrict parts of the Internet from Minnesotans. At the heart of the matter, one participant said, was how this new world in which thousands of students can sign on for free to participate in college courses from some of the most prestigious universities around the world fits into the already-existing structure of higher education.
Clearly we are just beginning to scratch the surface.