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.