Free online classes banned in Minnesota without explicit government approval

Campus Reform Reporter
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated since its original posting. Please see bottom for latest details.

Minnesota law requires that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) give approval to any free online courses made available in the state, for state residents, officials have confirmed to Campus Reform.

The law has been in place for years, but it gained notoriety this week after a small online education institution, Coursera, claims they were informed by OHE, the same branch of government that administers financial aid for state schools, that they operating illegally by offering free online courses.

Free online classes are banned in the state of Minnesota without explicit approval from the government, even if students receive no credit for taking them.

Coursera, which offers online classes on a variety of academic disciplines, claims on its website that they were “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.”

Coursera further advises students that if they 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.”

A spokesman for OHE, confirmed to Campus Reform on Friday that all online education is banned without the explicit approval of his office.

“Schools that offer courses, programs, or degrees to Minnesota Residents need to register with us,” said George Roedler, Manager of Instructional Registration and Licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Roedler said that even organizations which offer no credit for completing their classes are unwelcome in the state, unless approved by government officials.

“Well, right,” he confirmed to Campus Reform. “The fact is that some of these courses are going to end up resulting in credit when they go to another school.”

Roedler declined to immediately release the letter his office sent to Coursera, citing time constraints in his schedule.

However, he denied that state officials forced the online educational organization to change their terms of service.

“The result [of our letter to them] was that they decided they would put that statement on the use section of their online registration or whatever it is,” said Roedler. “We didn’t tell them to do that.”

Minnesota Statute 136A.61 states that the state can provide “protection” to residents “by establishing policies and procedures to assure the authenticity and legitimacy of private postsecondary education institutions and programs.”

It adds that “this same policy applies to any private and public postsecondary educational institution located in another state or country which offers or makes available to a Minnesota resident any course, program or educational activity which does not require the leaving of the state for its completion.”

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UPDATE: Slate reports that the state of Minnesota has reconsidered their stance. Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Eduction told Slate:

Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.... 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. Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.



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