Minnesota Bans Coursera: What You Need To Know

The future of education is online, open, and robust. (The October issue of Edudemic Magazine is all about that actually) That is, of course, assuming that the government thinks it’s okay. In Minnesota, users are literally banned from using the popular free online education site Coursera.

So is this a case of trying to stop progress or the opposite?

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled about this controversial move and I don’t intend to act like Edudemic is breaking any news here. Instead, I went through a variety of sources and did my best to uncover the meat and potatoes of what’s actually happening. Inside this roundup is a glimpse into what we can all expect at some point in the near future: more controversy as online education becomes increasingly popular.

Now that large chunks of money are involved, you can bet this kind of occurrence will start happening on a much larger scale.

Very soon.

What Happened

The Slate has a solid recap of what exactly happened:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the state has decided to crack down on free education, notifying California-based startup Coursera that it is not allowed to offer its online courses to the state’s residents. Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, partners with top-tier universities around the world to offer certain classes online for free to anyone who wants to take them. You know, unless they happen to be from Minnesota.

A policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education told The Chronicle that Minnesota is simply enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders. She couldn’t say whether other online education startups like edX and Udacity were also told to stay out.

Coursera’s Updated Terms of Service

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.

From the Chronicle:

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.”

A Widespread Problem

TechCrunch has a solid write-up of how the issue is indicitive of a larger problem that brings to mind the recent issue about a taxi-pickup app Uber:

Under Minnesota law, university partners of EdX, Coursera, or any other MOOC are education vigilantes. While it’s unlikely that Stanford or Harvard will bow to legal threats, or that Minnesota could enforce the law, the silly incident underscores a widespread problem between government regulators and startups: 20th century consumer and worker rights laws are hindering innovation. Just this week, on-demand driver service, Uber, had to shutter its smartphone app for NYC cabs, since it violated taxi unions’ rules related to pickup fees. New York unions also went after popular house-renting service, Airbnb, alleging that users who rent out their rooms are creating “illegal” hotels that threaten the profitability of the hospitality industry. Ultimately, the rules must be re-written or governments must use their discretionary powers to overlook antiquated laws. Otherwise, we’re going to have the unfortunate pleasure of notifying more and more readers that their beloved services are now illegal.

Questions Being Raised

Robert Talbert has listed a few key questions on his recent post discussing the matter:

How does Minnesota plan on enforcing this law with respect to its citizens? Coursera can’t block its content from Minnesota, so residents are going to have access to it if they have access to the internet at all. So how is Minnesota going to keep them from going to class?

Click here to read the post and the rest of the questions he posed. Worth checking out!

My questions are geared more towards the larger picture. What does this law mean for the rest of the MOOC providers? Who will enforce these laws (schools or states or companies)? Will this law turn into something larger or will it drift away as the news cycle continues on…

Only time will tell. In the meantime, it’s certainly indicative of how education is evolving and how the new trends and tools we talk about every day on Edudemic are starting to forever change the educational landscape.


  1. Michael Rosario

    October 21, 2012 at 6:38 am

    This law in the context of MOOC’s does not make any sense.

    (1) Coursera does not grant degrees to my knowledge. (please correct me if I’m wrong)

    (2) There are lots of other sources of free/open online courses. Does this law apply to all of them? How in the world do you enforce this law?

    (3) Isn’t this a free speech issue? Under the first amendment, I would assert that Coursera should be free to offer it’s service to everyone in Minnesota on the grounds of free expression.

    I am sure that the framer’s intent of the law involved trying to protect citizens from getting certifications or degrees that were not qualified or reputable. In the case of Coursera, this law seems backwards.

  2. course taker

    October 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Now how on earth would they prevent anyone from taking a course from coursera or a Russian site? Will they close the Internet doors to Minnesota? I choked on my soda when I read this because it is so absurd.