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State of Minnesota bans free online education

Coursera told to pay up or get out

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Web-based education startup Coursera offers university-level courses "for anyone to take, for free" – anyone, that is, except residents of the US state of Minnesota, where free online education has been declared illegal.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education has told Coursera that it must not offer its free courses in the Land of 10,000 Lakes because it has not received authorization from the state government to do so.

"This has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years)," Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the Minnesota Office of Higher Education told The Chronicle, "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."

Not that Coursera qualifies as a "postsecondary institution," as such. But the site offers courses developed by 33 accredited universities worldwide, ranging from Stanford University in California to Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and these institutions definitely do qualify.

According to a separate report in Slate, Minnesota believes each of Coursera's partner universities should register with the state before they offer their courses to its residents. Naturally, that involves a fee – anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand for each university, plus a $1,200 annual renewal charge.

While that could be a nice payday for the state, however, it's a little difficult to understand how the registration requirement protects consumers in this case. Minnesota officials admit that the law is designed to prevent residents from wasting their money on bogus college degrees, but Coursera doesn't charge for its courses and it doesn't offer degrees.

Furthermore, Coursera's Terms of Service clearly state that use of its online courses neither enrolls students in any educational institution nor establishes any relationship between students and Coursera's partner universities.

Nonetheless, Coursera has responded to Minnesota's demands by adding a new clause to its Terms:

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.

It was not immediately clear what action Minnesota intends to take against those scofflaws who continue to take Coursera courses within the state, and Minnesota officials did not respond to El Reg's request for comment. But owners of Internet cafés in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin might do well to stock up on extra supplies for law-abiding knowledge seekers forced to cross the border. ®

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