What Minnesota told Coursera about its online education courses

OHE Coursera Letters

You may have read the articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Slate about how the Minnesota Office of Higher Education is putting Coursera through the wringer.

The Chronicle says the state recently gave "the boot" to the well-known provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for running afoul of Minnesota law:

The state’s Office of Higher Education has informed the popular provider of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, that Coursera is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there.

And a Slate blog went so far as to scream Free Online Education Is Now Illegal in Minnesota.

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Pretty strong stuff.

I called up George Roedler at the higher-ed office. He's head of registration and licensing -- and is the man behind the whole affair.

The situation seems much more nuanced than it originally appears. And from the way Office of Higher Ed Director Larry Pogemiller is talking, no one is getting kicked out of their Coursera classes.

In a nutshell, it seems to come down to this:

The state must decide how it wants to regulate what is now a fledgling online education system -- but one that could have the potential to grow into a major industry with a number of unscrupulous players.

I'll be updating this in a jiff, but here are the original two letters that Roedler says he sent Coursera.

Here's my attempt to boil everything down while giving a little context:

As part of its consumer-protection role, the Office of Higher Education regulates private degree-granting educational institutions by having them register with the state. (That includes large nonprofits and small for-profit universities. Non-degree schools that teach a trade, for example, have a separate procedure.)

Registration enables the office to look over schools' financial viability, check the accuracy of their marketing, make sure faculty have the right credentials, etc. The idea is to guard against educationally unsound or financially shaky programs.

But state statute does not differentiate between free, noncredit courses (such as those taken through Coursera) and traditional pay-for-credit courses.

So Roedler sent that correspondence to Coursera notifying the company that the programs were in violation of state law. He told me he realized later that he probably should have sent the letter to the individual universities -- not Coursera -- because they're the ones holding the classes.

He told me:

"We figured we'd send out one letter instead of 18 or 20 (to Coursera's universities), but it didn't work out that way. It's clear we'll have to deal with individual institutions."

Roedler said Coursera is not banned. He said it has no obligation to do anything at this point, but the company decided to issue a warning to Minnesota students on its Web site. Roedler said he didn't ask for it.

The real issue at hand is whether state law should indeed differentiate between free college classes and their pay-for-credit programs.

On its face, it seems like it should. No money is involved, so consumer protection is not an issue.

But Roedler said the law needs to cover what could happen in the future. He said Minnesota might not want to tie its hands by offering a blanket exemption to such programs.

He says online education is a growing industry, one that will probably begin charging money at some point. It may not be called tuition, but institutions might charge, for example, access fees. Some may already charge money for a certificate of participation. And universities have talked about granting credit for such online courses. And though Coursera's participating universities are well-respected, the MOOC industry could attract a number of unknown colleges with shaky programs and finances, he argued.

At that point, he suggested, the state might need the power to regulate.

How can it enforce its regulations?

Roedler said if colleges either don't register or violate the terms of their registration, the office can, among other things, notify their accrediting body or the federal Department of Education. Roedler said such red flags could cause problems for those schools.

(Such sanctions also help Roedler mediate between registered schools and their students, he said. If there's a dispute over tuition or the way a school has treated a student, for example, the threat of sanctions gives the office a bit of leverage when it steps in to work things out.)

Roedler said he'll be contacting Coursera's universities, and possibly those that have teamed up with other online education sites. He said he's not sure what he'll do if they refuse to register. He added, however, that he'll shift his position if the legislature changes the statute.

But later, Office of Higher Education Director Larry Pogemiller called me back. He sounded much less concerned than Roedler over the future.

He said the 20-year-old statute was "outdated" and never envisioned the types of classes that MOOCs such as Coursera offer. He said he'll suggest this legislative session that lawmakers should review the statute, and possibly suggest changes to exempt free programs.

He told me legislators should be able to institute language that regulates programs at appropriate points:

"They could draw a line and say, 'Well, if it's free, we're not involved. The moment you charge a nickel, we're involved.' That's a possibility. Or they could say, 'If it ain't for credit, we don't care. If it is something that someone's accepting for credit, we do care.' "

He said in an e-mailed statement:

“Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”