State of Minnesota goes after company for offering free online college courses
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
One might point to the censorship of certain phrases and concepts in tests administered in New York public schools or perhaps the strange sex education bills being pushed in certain parts of the nation as evidence of this trend.
It seems that the State of Minnesota is making a concerted effort to see that students have less access to education, especially if it is freely accessed online.
This is evidenced by Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education going after Coursera, a company offering free online courses to students around the globe in partnership with several universities.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Coursera has been told it is “unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there,” all based on a decades-old law which seems to have no proper place here.
In response to the state’s claims, Coursera was forced to place an updated statement in their terms of service, which reads:
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 an attempt to justify the move, Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education, said that letters with similar language have been sent to every postsecondary institution that offers courses in the state.
However, Grimes admitted that she was not aware if letters had been specifically sent to other providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) like edX (a collaboration of MIT and Harvard) or Udacity. Officials there did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Chronicle.
“This has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years) and applies to online and brick-and-mortar postsecondary institutions that offer instruction to Minnesota residents as part of our overall responsibility to provide consumer protection for students,” Grimes wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
Yet Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s co-founders, said that she was indeed quite surprised when they received the letter from Minnesota back in July.
“The law’s focus is on degree-granting programs as opposed to free, open courseware,” Koller said. “It’s not clear why they extended it to us.”
Indeed, it seems quite strange for Minnesota to extend the law to Coursera seeing as the law is supposedly supposed to protect consumers, not prevent eager students from receiving free education.
“We’re providing tremendous, high-quality education for free to students around the country,” said Koller, who is currently on leave from her post as a computer science professor at Stanford.
Koller added that she is not aware of comparable restrictions in other states and that many of the Coursera students are actually in high school or simply brushing up on their studies and thus likely wouldn’t be enrolling in a traditional degree program anyway.
One commentator, Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, offered up a somewhat humorous suggestion in a blog post for The Chronicle.
Talbert wrote that he can envision “a strong potential for a cottage industry: Set up a chain of coffee shops with free Internet access and on-site tutors just across Minnesota’s borders for Minnesotans to cross over and take their MOOC’s.”
Even more hilarious, in my opinion, is the sheer absurdity of Minnesota’s position. Indeed, as Talbert points out, “Coursera can’t block its content from Minnesota, so residents are going to have access to it if they have access to the internet at all.”
Furthermore, the Minnesota Literacy Council has openly endorsed programs similar to Coursera such as Khan Academy classes and Talbert notes, “it wouldn’t surprise me to find these online resources in regular use in Minnesota public schools and universities being widely used.”
Yet likely the most absurd of all is the fact that Minnesota’s application of the law to Coursera seems to insinuate that they believe Coursera is an actual university. Such an assertion is clearly nonsensical.
“The law restricts universities from offering online courses. Does this mean Minnesota considers Coursera to be a university? That seems like quite a statement,” writes Talbert.
Calling it “quite a statement” is not quite strong enough in my opinion. I would argue that it is quite an imbecilic statement and one which would be refuted by about two seconds of browsing on the Coursera website.
Personally, I think this problem extends far beyond just this small case in Minnesota. Indeed I would argue that this is just a symptom of the greater illness that is the relentless commercialization of education into something that is more about bilking countless young people out of their loans or their parents’ money instead of actually teaching said young people anything.
The fact that anyone in any state would go after a company providing a service as laudable as that provided by Coursera and many others is nothing short of disgusting in my opinion. Hopefully Minnesota will realize just how nonsensical their position is and instead choose to promote MOOCs and other free online courses as a promising avenue to be explored in the quest to educate each and every person around the world.
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