Want to take these courses for free? It's legal again! (Screenshot from Coursera) (www.coursera.org).
by Aaron Klemz
Oct 22, 2012, 10:00 AM

Pogemiller on banning Coursera: “never mind”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Monday that the Minnesota Office of Higher Education has backed away from a demand that Coursera, a provider of free online courses cease operating in the state.

On Friday, just hours after an administrator in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education said the state planned to demand registration and fees from universities that were offering the noncredit classes through the online course provider Coursera, the director of his office struck a more conciliatory tone.

Technically, the dozens of universities offering courses through Coursera were violating a 20-year-old Minnesota law that requires universities to get permission from the state first, the director, Lawrence Pogemiller, said.

But after his office’s tough stance prompted a flurry of complaints and critical blog posts, Mr. Pogemiller said, essentially, Never mind.

“Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free,” he said in a written statement. “No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.”

As details have emerged, it seems like the state OHE might have been caught trying to shake down MOOC (massive open online course) providers for thousands of dollars in registration fees. George R. Roedler Jr., OHE manager of institutional registration and licensing, went so far as to threaten contacting accrediting agencies if they didn’t pay up:

Asked how his office and its 2.4-member staff planned to enforce the law, Mr. Roedler said the office was in the process of contacting each of the universities offering online courses in the state to remind them that they need to register and pay fees if they wanted Minnesotans to take their courses. Fees can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. If the institutions refused, and Minnesotans were signing up, his office would notify the university’s accreditors that they were violating state law. “The statute doesn’t exclude free or noncredit courses,” he said.

It’s true that we’re entering a new world of online learning that will require government to rethink how it regulates higher education providers. But as I pointed out Friday, it’s not like the OHE has done much to regulate the for-profit colleges that operate in Minnesota. The sudden interest in “consumer protection” for free online courses rings hollow until they do something to protect consumers from predatory recruitment practices and sky high student loan default rates at for-profit colleges that operate in Minnesota.

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