The State of Minnesota has cracked down on free on-line courses offered by Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors. A spokesman for the state’s office of Higher Education said that Minnesota is simply “enforcing a longstanding state law requiring colleges to get the government’s permission to offer instruction within its borders.”
How this state law can be enforced is unclear since the ban is meaningless in cyberspace unless, of course, Minnesota authorities decide to act like Chinese politburo officials. Moreover, Coursera isn’t offering degrees – only classes.
Presumably you can exchange ideas on Facebook or Twitter, but should you decide to review Coursera material on macroeconomics, for example, the strong arm of authorities will take hold. This is mind-numbing. It may make sense for higher education authorities to monitor degree granting programs, but Coursera courses do not have degree implications.
In some respects this absurd state response is comparable to horse-owners opposing the first tractors. Whether Minnesota likes it or not, on-line education is here to stay, calling into question the traditional delivery of education and the competence standards associated with a degree. If one relies on Richard Arum and Josipa Ruksa’s conclusion in Academically Adrift, most college students don’t learn much during four years on campus. At the same time, the cost of tuition has reached a break point for most middle-class families.
Clearly the market is demanding an alternative. On-line education is filling an obvious need. It is inexpensive and in theory can be at least as rigorous as traditional education purports to be.