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Warning To Minnesota Residents: Don't Take Stanford Profs' Free, Online Courses

Update, 10/20:

The director of Minnesota's Office of Higher Education tells 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.

Our original post follows.

A couple of Stanford professors have set up a company called to offer free, online classes to anybody anywhere in the world who wants to take them.

Anywhere in the world, that is, except Minnesota. Coursera's terms of service warns:

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.

An official from the state's department of ed tells the Chronicle of Higher Education:

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 is one of several new projects aimed at using technology to make higher education cheaper and more widely available. As a general matter, projects that try to use technology to make things cheaper and more widely available often run into regulatory roadblocks.

This particular roadblock seems perfectly designed to rile Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, a pair of libertarian-leaning economists and who recently co-founded an online learning project called .

On their blog this morning, Tabarrok brings the tongue-in-cheek bravado:

Tyler and I wish to be perfectly clear: unlike Coursera, we will not shut down to the residents of Minnesota. We are prepared to defend our rights under the First Amendment to teach the good people of Minnesota all about the Solow Model, water policy in Africa, and the economics of garlic–even if we have to do so from a Minnesota jail!


Slate reports:

George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher education, clarifies that his office's issue isn't with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. ...

"It's not like we're sending the police out if somebody signs up online," Roedler adds. "It's just that the school is operating contrary to state law."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.