Minnesota vs. Online Learning (and the First Amendment)

By Eric Wearne

Eric Wearne, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Recently, the state of Minnesota used a state statute to briefly ban online education.  The state’s Office of Higher Education (OHE) informed new online education startup Coursera that the company could no longer provide services in Minnesota because they had not been approved by the state.  According to a policy analyst at the OHE, “This has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years) and applies to online and brick-and-mortar postsecondary institutions that offer instruction to Minnesota residents as part of our overall responsibility to provide consumer protection for students.”  Coursera’ s courses are all freely available on the internet, however, so no one would be “tricked” into spending money on them. (When pressed OHE staff responded that that may be true, but they could still be wasting their time).

Coursera’ s goals state that they are attempting to “… give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”  In response to the move by to Minnesota’s OHE, they felt the need to add this bit into their terms of service:

Notice for Minnesota Users:

Coursera has been 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. 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.

But the state quickly backed down in the face of complaints.  According to the director of the Minnesota OHE, “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.”

It is unclear if other companies/schools offering online courses were approached by the state of Minnesota, (Udacity, Marginal Revolution University, and others, including Georgia Tech, who partnered with such groups, may all have been in violation of Minnesota state law), though at least one of these groups was willing to go to jail over the issue.  Slate’s Will Oremus writes he originally felt that “Minnesota should win a grand prize for ‘most creative use of government to stifle innovation.’ It’s only fair now that I also give it, if not a grand prize, at least an honorable mention for government responsiveness in the face of a backlash.”

Georgia officials working to implement SB 289, and on the Governor’s Digital Learning Task Force should note this story.  The default position for both of these groups should be to consider the value of creative solutions, not to reflexively look for statutes and other means to stifle them.

Eric Wearne is a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Senior Fellow and Assistant Professor at the Georgia Gwinnett College School of Education.  Previously he was Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.