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Minnesota Gives Coursera the Boot, Citing a Decades-Old Law

Coursera offers free, online courses to people around the world, but if you live in Minnesota, company officials are urging you to log off or head for the border.

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. It’s unclear how the law could be enforced when the content is freely available on the Web, but Coursera updated its Terms of Service to include the following caution:

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.

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota. She said she did not know specifically whether letters had been sent to other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity, and officials there did not immediately respond to questions from The Chronicle.

But Ms. Grimes said the law the letters refer to isn’t new. “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,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, said she was surprised to receive the letter from Minnesota in July. “The law’s focus is on degree-granting programs as opposed to free, open courseware,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s not clear why they extended it to us.”

Ms. Koller, who is on leave from her position as a professor of computer science at Stanford, said she wasn’t aware of any other states with similar restrictions. “We’re providing  tremendous, high-quality education for free to students around the country,” she said. Most of the enrolled students, many of whom are in high school or brushing up on professional credentials, wouldn’t be signing up for traditional degree courses, so Coursera shouldn’t pose any threat to them, she added.

Referring to Coursera’s caution that Minnesotans who do enroll study outside the state, Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, had a suggestion.

Writing in his blog on The Chronicle’s Web site, he said he sees “a strong potential for a cottage industry: Set up a chain of coffee shops with free Internet access and on-site tutors just across Minnesota’s borders for Minnesotans to cross over and take their MOOC’s.”

>> What You Need to Know About MOOC’s

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