Minnesota Is Being Laughed At

I suppose every state in the U.S. would be guilty of creating laws that ended up biting them. Or perhaps they just don’t enforce them the way Minnesota recently did. Regardless, Minnesota was mocked for interfering with free online education. Why the heck would a state like Minnesota, known for top-5-in-the-nation academics, prevent something so obviously beneficial?

A while back the state decided to regulate higher education providers to prevent such schools from swindling students. There are still considerable calls today to have the state crack down on for-profit colleges. Part of the regulation process required a substantial fee from the institutions. This sort of regulation worked okay when things were “analog”, but today’s a new day.

The digital age has opened the gates to a new world of fluidity and affordability. Intellectual property like music and movies have gone way down in price and the ability to learn about almost any given subject is at anyone’s disposal: entries on Wikipedia, videos from the Khan Academy and TED. Physical barriers like books and classrooms aren’t as necessary as they once were–if at all.

So along came a company called Coursera, an enterprise with the goal of educating as many people as possible. They are doing this by partnering up with universities across the world and having the universities offer their courses online free of charge using the Coursera website. Perhaps the selling point for universities to do this is the good will gesture; perhaps it’s a sales pitch to have free course-takers formally enroll in their institutions. Either way, the State of Minnesota wasn’t buying.

They informed Coursera that it was in violation of State law to have these partnering universities offering their courses to Minnesotans without permission from the State (without paying the registration fees.) Then a small, but key action was taken. Instead of playing ball with the State, Coursera simply said, in effect, “Okay, then. Your residents can’t enjoy our services.”

This took George Roedler at the Minnesota Office of Higher education by surprise. In the age old battle of citizen vs. State, the State has enjoyed an advantage because of the necessity to physically be present to break the law. With the Internet, though…

Roedler started the back-peddling when contacted by Slate.com. (Slate.com’s coverage was the main inspiration behind this piece. See their full story here.) This now being the year 2012, he realized that in this case the State has lost this advantage. Said Roedler, “It’s not like we’re sending the police out if somebody signs up online.”

It’s also not just the difficulty with enforcement, but a question of legitimacy. Slate.com wrote, “The law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions, Roedler says. The thing is, no one is wasting their money on Coursera courses, because they’re free. (Yes, says Roedler, but they could still be wasting their time.) If every government took Minnesota’s approach, free online education probably wouldn’t exist, because the cost of compliance and registration in all 50 states, let alone other countries, would be prohibitive. Here’s hoping that common sense prevails.”

And here’s where the public dog-piled on Minnesota. Here are some comments from readers of Slate.com and Reddit.com:
Eric J.: “Looks like common sense lost the day. Imagine that a free education is considered illegal.”Joe O.: “So, if I live in Minnesota and I tutor my nephew once a week in mathematics, am I breaking the law?”

Geoff: “This is why America is losing its edge in innovation. Government officials are poorly educated themselves.”

peteTheBee: “Am I the only one thinking this would never have happened under the Ventura administration?”

nskowyra: “I’m from minnesota, I gotta say, this is quite unMinnesotan if I’ve ever heard it.”

PorteroDeArte: “For once I’m happy to live in Utah.”

What this is really about is the nature of the government institution: a force which can protect and restricts at the same time. Like other forces out there it can be used for good or bad. And in an ever-developing world that we live in, often the most important variable in determining this is time.

It’s not 1990 anymore, and Roedler didn’t seem to understand this. He said he hoped he could work with the universities offering their courses to obtain the registration. He wanted their money, and this is a bit jarring when you realize that it wasn’t enough that these colleges were offering their courses for free; Minnesota wanted them to pay to offer their courses for no charge.

Recognizing this law’s ineffectiveness and inappropriateness in this case, Minnesota recently decided to not enforce this law against universities working with Coursera. These are the kinds of transitions that a government needs to make as technology proves laws useless, or worse: more harm than good.

to new plateaus,


3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Can States Outlaw Free Online Education? — The Good Men Project

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