Online course enrollment in the United States is hitting record levels with more than 6.1 million students. Millions of would-be scholars, concerned about the “higher education bubble”, are looking for alternatives to traditional forms of study.
Therefore, many Minnesota residents were perplexed when free online offerings triggered some concern from their state’s officials. The Washington Post higher education writer Nick Anderson reviews the Minnesota Office of Higher Education findings and its decision, which was based on First Amendment principles.
Minnesotans, rest assured: Your state government believes you are entitled to free online higher education.
This had been a point of controversy until, well, a few minutes ago. In an earlier post this afternoon, I noted that the free online education provider Coursera had added a proviso to its terms of service that Minnesotans should not take any of its free university courses, or at least that they should do the majority of the work in said courses in another state.
Why was this state suddenly taking a stand against the online education tide?
Apparently someone in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education deemed it necessary for universities that offer courses via Coursera to register with the state, according to an old state law that aims to protect consumers from education scams. Apparently some had not done so.
After this became public, and people raised a few questions about the First Amendment and other matters — namely, how exactly can a free course be a scam? — the office issued a clarification via email.
“Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free,” said Larry Pogemiller, director of the office. “No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.”
Pogemiller, according to the e-mail, said a 20-year-old statute requiring institutional registration clearly did not envision free online, not-for-credit offerings.
“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”
Case closed? Not quite. I bet questions about regulation of universities in the online realm are only going to multiply in the future, maybe as fast as massive open online courses themselves. This is why MOOCs are, as they say, “disruptive.”