Access to free courses is a freedom of speech issue

October 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

ClassroomThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State of Minnesota is requiring any degree-granting educational institution providing an online course to pay a registration fee:

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.

Slate adds more detail about the purpose of the law:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

This seems counter-intuitive to me. Accreditation is important; there are plenty of non-accredited degree scams out there. But banning a free course that carries no degree credits? I’m not a lawyer, but that appears to be a First Amendment violation. After all, that’s all a free course really is: expression. A sensible requirement might be for the courses to clearly say they don’t carry credit, in order to protect consumers, but an outright ban is fundamentally counter-productive.

Of course, there is likely to be a time when the Internet disrupts the institutional accreditation process, just as it’s disrupted many other gatekeeper processes. That will raise some serious issues: I think accreditation really is important to protect both students and employers, and I think it’s fair to say that many online course startups are positioning themselves in readiness for this change. Finding a way to protect the job market, students and educators will be important. But restricting access to information is never the answer – and particularly not here, where knowledge from traditionally expensive institutions is being made available to everybody.

Update: the Minnesotan Office of Higher Education has responded to the furore:

“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller [director of the Office]. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

There’s more over at the Washington Post.