The proliferation of university courses available free online has the potential to revolutionise the way higher education is accessed by would-be students in every corner of the globe. With the exception of Minnesota.
At least that seemed to be the case last month when the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (OHE) contacted Coursera, one of the leading providers of massive open online courses (Moocs), to inform the company that it was violating a decades-old law that requires institutions offering higher education in Minnesota to register and to pay annual fees to the state.
This forced Coursera into urgent action. It updated its terms of service to request that Minnesota residents "not take courses on Coursera", or to at least ensure that the majority of work for any given class was completed "outside the State of Minnesota". Bloggers were quick to offer constructive criticism.
"Every once in a while, some news comes down from on high that reveals that the people we're trusting to lead don't have a clue about what they're doing," wrote Paul Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, in his Pharyngula blog.
"You shouldn't get to browse a website and be awarded a PhD in quantum neuroscience. But Coursera doesn't do that: they don't issue degrees or even credits, they just provide massive open online courses for free. So you can learn stuff. For free. You don't go there so you can pretend to learn and get a fancy diploma to hang on your wall, it's just free information."
Describing the ban as "utterly unenforceable and absolutely ludicrous", Professor Myers urged people across Minnesota to embrace their rebellious side and covertly sign up for a course as soon as possible.
"Take your laptop or iPad into the bedroom or bathroom or some place private, turn off the lights, and browse Coursera - I recommend the biology section, obviously," he wrote.
"Oh, look: Rosie Redfield has a course on practical genetics. That should be good. Sign up for something.
"Now feel the thrill of being an outlaw. Go commit crimes: learn something."
The attraction of breaking such a ludicrous law could actually encourage more Minnesotans to sign up to Coursera, Professor Myers mused.
"Hey, maybe the Minnesota OHE is trying reverse psychology on us?" he asked.
This was one of a deluge of blogs that appeared to ridicule the ban, and shortly afterwards the OHE reversed its decision.
"Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they're free," said director Lawrence Pogemiller.
"No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera."
Now, once again, the people of Minnesota can openly sign up to study courses from 33 universities worldwide, alongside 1.77 million other students, without wondering whether their next module will be completed in a cell.
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