Want to take these courses for free? It's legal again! (Screenshot from Coursera) (www.coursera.org).
by Aaron Klemz
Oct 19, 2012, 10:32 AM

Minnesota bans free online classes

Thursday, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) has banned Coursera, an online platform for free massive open online courses (MOOC’s) from operating in Minnesota. Coursera was sent a cease and desist letter from the OHE for failing to register as a higher education provider. Other MOOC platforms like edX and Udacity have yet to say if they’ve been sent similar letters.

Keep in mind, Coursera’s courses do not lead to a degree or a credential (although it’s fair to say that several MOOC platforms are exploring the possibilities of doing that.)

This action has come in for some much deserved mockery around the nation. Slate chimed in, and New York Times social media producer Michael Roston added:

But to my mind, the real reason that the OHE’s action is suspect is that they’ve done little to regulate the bricks-and-mortar (and online) for-profit colleges that operate in the state. In fact, OHE Director Larry Pogemiller had this to say about the severe restraints his office has when regulating colleges:

Pogemiller described Minnesota’s regulations of for-profit colleges as average but said his office does not have the money or staff to investigate for-profit schools.

“When I first came over in this job six months ago, I was kind of surprised,” Pogemiller said of the state’s lack of oversight of for-profit colleges. “It’s really just kind of a registration system. I actually thought it was more regulated than it was.”

State higher education officials review the finances and programs of for-profit schools registered with the state. They also mediate student complaints. But the complaints typically involve grades or tuition disputes.

If a college provides students with misleading information, the office can suspend or revoke its registration, essentially shutting it down. It can also act if a court- or government proceeding finds a school has engaged in fraud or misrepresentation.

Pogemiller is hesitant to seek additional funding. He said the schools may not be sufficiently plagued with problems to warrant such investigations.

Instead, Pogemiler said, it might be wiser to spend state money on a higher priority — such as offering more financial aid to students.

“You have to balance at what level that abuse deserve[s] an allocation of resources,” he said.

Yes, Director Pogemiller, you do have to decide how to allocate resources. Rather than going after MOOC’s that provide free access to information, perhaps the OHE could direct its attention to the folks who are charging way too much for it.

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