October 19, 2012

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: Free Online Education Is Now Illegal in Minnesota.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the state has decided to crack down on free education, notifying California-based startup Coursera that it is not allowed to offer its online courses to the state’s residents. Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, partners with top-tier universities around the world to offer certain classes online for free to anyone who wants to take them. You know, unless they happen to be from Minnesota.

A policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education told The Chronicle that Minnesota is simply enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders. She couldn’t say whether other online education startups like edX and Udacity were also told to stay out.

As the Chronicle notes, with admirable restraint, “It’s unclear how the law could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web.” And keep in mind, Coursera isn’t offering degrees—just free classes. . . .

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.

Perhaps I’m overly suspicious, but I suspect that this is a case of entrenched academic interests trying to use regulatory power to protect their rice bowls. Which is something that I predicted.

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