Minnesota Bans Free Online Education by Coursera

Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education recently notified Coursera—a provider of free online college courses—that it is forbidden by state law from providing its service to residents of Minnesota. Of course, his raises two questions: (1) Why? And (2) How would Minnesota enforce the prohibition of service by an online entity?

The Chronicle of Higher Education broke this story, which was then picked up by Slate.com. Both sources note that after being informed of the decades-old state law, Coursera updated its terms of service as its attempt to comply with Minnesota’s wacky prohibition. The relevant portion now reads:

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.

How either Coursera or Minnesota plan to enforce the prohibition is not clear. I noted in a more thorough analysis on Pro and Contracts that the statutory language being enforced by Minnesota also provides no guidance on enforcement—or even for how the law or penalties would pragmatically apply to this situation. The language of the statute clearly applies to Coursera, but prohibition of Coursera’s use by Minnesota residents seems directly contrary to the purpose of the law as laid out in Minn. Stat. 136A.61, the relevant part of which reads:

The legislature has found and hereby declares that the availability of legitimate courses and programs leading to academic degrees offered by responsible private not-for-profit and for-profit institutions of postsecondary education and the existence of legitimate private colleges and universities are in the best interests of the people of this state.

Aside from Minnesota attempting to assess the maximum $500-per-day fine for not being in compliance with the registration requirements of the law, it is hard to see what enforcement of the law would look like, and whether Minnesota would actually be able to collect such fees even if it tried. It is likely moot, since Coursera has modified it’s terms of service to adhere to Minnesota law, and the only people being harmed by the debacle are the residents of Minnesota.

Still, one has to wonder why Minnesota decided to try to enforce this law, and why only against Coursera. What about MIT’s free online classes? Or how about Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard? I can still access those. It seems like Minnesota needs to figure out what it’s trying to accomplish, and figure out what it’s goal really is.

(photo: http://flickr.com/#/photos/lauralewis23/6649153913/)

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  • http://www.godfreadlaw.com Paul Godfread

    I was just getting into Coursera. It really is pretty cool.

    But seriously, this can’t be the right application of the law. I understand the need for some regulation of institutions that charge money and issue degrees and certificates. But to my knowledge, Coursera does neither. Except maybe a certification that you did the course. As a resident of the Great State of Minnesota, am I really not allowed to read and view the great wealth of information on Coursera? Can the State of Minnesota prohibit me from communicating with and associating with professors and other students through the Coursera platform?

    But there is another terms and conditions angle too, which you should appreciate. What happens when a Minnesota resident says “to hell with it, I’m taking my Coursera course.” It seems like they might have breached the contract with Coursera, except that neither of the parties to the contract would care, unless the State of Minnesota gets involved. Hmmm.

    I suppose one could drive to Hudson, WI and camp out at a coffee shop to do Coursera, but that seems like a waste of time. Maybe pick up some beer, if its Sunday.

    • Graham Martin

      My thought on your proposal about Minnesota residents breaching the terms of service is that their breach may be sufficient to cause damages to Coursera in the form of that $500-per-day (maximum) penalty outlined in Minn. Stat. 136A.69. If so, then I presume Coursera would have a cause of action against any of those people breaching the agreement.

      That still assumes that (a) Minnesota decides to put enough resources into the situation to attempt to enforce the law, and (b) Coursera decides to take any action to show that Minnesota residents are using the service in violation of the terms of service…neither of which I expect will occur.

  • David McDonough

    Is it possible that the higher education providers in Minnesota complained, leading to the enforcement? I could see how companies such as UPhoenix or community colleges might lose business to free education entities.

    I look forward to hearing a follow up on this next week, to see if the State has a more substantial justification for their actions.