Free for all
A legal misunderstanding in Minnesota shows states need to clarify their policies about online education
Coursera, the provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that has teamed with 33 institutions including the University, was banned last week from the state of Minnesota for a period of roughly one day. Considering there were no colleges in Minnesota that were partnered with Coursera, this development struck many as odd. The one-day legal fiasco in Minnesota was the result of confusion between the state and the company and serves as a reminder that political bodies need to clarify the definition of MOOCs. To ensure that online education is governed by local and state laws, legislators must specify the kinds of statues that will apply to MOOCs within their boundaries.
In Minnesota, the debacle began Thursday after the state’s Office of Higher Education decided to actively enforce a law that had been on the books for more than two decades. In July, the state sent a letter to bodies providing higher education in Minnesota, including Coursera. The letter reminded its audience of a stipulation in Minnesota law: Degree-granting institutions must have state permission and pay a minor licensing fee before teaching within the state’s borders. According to the state, Coursera had not abided by this requirement, and so education officials informed the California company that it was no longer welcome in Minnesota. Thereafter, Coursera updated its terms of service to tell Minnesota residents they were not allowed to take any MOOCs on Coursera, unless Minnesotan students took those MOOCs outside of state lines.
For several reasons, Coursera and other analysts found this upheaval surprising if not outright bizarre. First, as Coursera is not a “degree-granting institution” it appeared that the law in question was simply misapplied. Moreover, according to The Washington Post, similar registration laws exist in states beyond Minnesota to ensure that online providers of education are properly vetted. The goal is consumer protection: The state needs to certify digital institutions to help its residents avoid being scammed. Several commentators, however, have noted that Coursera and other MOOCs, which are free, are altruistic platforms that pose no threat to consumers. To disallow students from accessing MOOCs would be unfair, unreasonable and impossible for states to enforce.
The critics who condemned Minnesota altered their tone when the state backpedalled Friday. Larry Pogemiller, the director of the Office of Higher Education, released a statement explaining why Coursera was newly permissible. If Pogemiller’s statement is any indication, the fact that Coursera was free made it immune from the typical process.
Minnesota’s law was to protect consumers; if it is argued that a free MOOC does not concern them, then the state was correct to retract its judgment last week. Nevertheless, this case is an example of a MOOC company operating outside the realm of the law. That MOOCs are free and aim to inform should not hide the fact that they are run by businesses, at least in the case of Coursera. Indeed, Coursera is currently exempt from state law because its courses are free and without certification, but the company’s practice is subject to change. Although an agreement was reached last week in Minnesota, this incident displays that legislators will need to clarify their policies on education licensing. These MOOC corporations — which may eventually charge or give credit — should not be allowed to conduct for-profit business in states without the prudent oversight demanded of other enterprises.