State Stops Enforcing Portion of Education Law

Updated: 10/25/2012 7:28 AM By: Mark Albert

Minnesota will no longer enforce a two decades-old law that made it a violation of state statute for universities and colleges to offer free, online education courses without paying a state registration fee, according to the director of the Office of Higher Education.

"I said, no, no, we need to be a little more flexible here right now," director Larry Pogemiller explained, "because we're serving no public service by, in any way, indicating that we're preventing access to free, online materials."

Pogemiller's office got embroiled in a social media uproar after a staff member sent a letter to Coursera, an online website that offers free educational courses from 33 universities and colleges, notifying it that state law required the payment of a per-course fee by educational institutions who offered courses to Minnesota residents.

The fees begin at $250 per course per institution of higher learning. The 20 year-old statute intended to allow Minnesota to protect consumers from educational scams and ensure adequate educational material, but made no distinction for free, online courses, which may not have been envisioned when the statute was first written.

The state's letter to Coursera, and the controversial requirement to force the payment of a fee for a free course, sparked a backlash that caused the state to reconsider, Pogemiller said.

"Our staff was doing what they should have done because that's what the law says. And we just decided to say, alright, let's not strictly enforce that for the time being," Pogemiller said.

Pogemiller, a former DFL Senate Majority leader, said he already has indications of bipartisan support for changing the statute and plans to press lawmakers to do so when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Daphne Koller, one of two Stanford University professors who founded Coursera, said she was "taken aback" by Minnesota's letter and said the website's 1.7 million students are "clearly the winners" by the state's decision to waive the law.

For a short time, Coursera had posted updated language in its Terms of Service directed at Minnesota students which warned them to "not take courses on Coursera," due to the state statute. After the agreement with the state, that warning has now been removed from the website.

"Now we can embark on a much more, I think, informed and reasonable process," Koller said in an interview from California with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.