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Minnesota backpedals from online education ban

Free lifelong learning not a threat after all

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The US state of Minnesota has backed away from a policy that would have banned providers of free web-based higher education from offering courses to its residents.

Last week, El Reg reported that online education startup Coursera was forced to add a clause to its terms of service forbidding Minnesotans from taking its courses, after that state's Office of Higher Education warned it that Coursera's activities violated Minnesota's consumer protection laws.

The only way to continue to offer its courses to Minnesota residents, Coursera was reportedly told, was for each of its 33 university partners to register to offer educational services within the state, at a cost of $1,200 per year plus an initial fee.

On Monday, however, Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, was in full spin-control mode.

"Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they're free," Pogemiller said in a statement emailed to The Register.

Previously, Minnesota officials had made the case that the state's registration law applied equally to online and brick-and-mortar institutions, regardless of whether they charged for their courses.

The idea of the law is to protect Minnesotans from wasting their money – or even their time – on low-quality degree programs. But although Coursera offers high-quality course materials developed by top universities worldwide, it neither charges for its courses nor offers credits toward degrees.

In his statement, Pogemiller acknowledged that the company's innovative model made it a new kind of educational resource not envisioned by Minnesota's decades-old law. As such, he said, the Office of Higher Education had no plans to take action against either Coursera or its users.

"No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera," Pogemiller wrote.

As far as we know, only Coursera has butted heads with Minnesota over its registration law thus far. Other online-learning startups, such as edX and Udacity, have not reported similar troubles. But the issue may soon be moot, as Pogemiller says the law is due for a refresh.

"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," Pogemiller wrote in his statement. "Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings." ®

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