The Latest Technologies Bump into Obsolete Laws

One of the marvelous things about the Internet is that it allows people to take courses anywhere anytime. While the Internet may give us that capability, the reality is that there are other issues that come into play. No, I am not talking about lack of Internet access or lack of infrastructure or resistance from instructors. I am referring to state laws and requirements about what can be taught in their state and how it can be taught.

A recent story on Planet Money at NPR brought this issue to light. In Warning to Minnesota Residents: Don’t Take Stanford Profs’ Free, Online Courses, Jacob Goldstein wrote about Coursera’s caveat to Minnesota residents that they cannot take the company’s free online classes except under very specific conditions, one of which is to complete most of the course outside of Minnesota.  A state department official said that part of the rationale for this 20-year-old law was to serve a consumer protection function for students.  In a response the day after this story appeared, the director of Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education said that the law obviously needs to be updated so that Minnesotans can take advantage of such free opportunities for lifelong learning.

One reason this piece caught my eye was that we have recently run into some related situations. Our graduate programs are going more and more online, and in order to increase enrollment, we want to go outside the state boundaries. However, it turns out that we have agreements with certain states and not with others. Recently we have had to turn away potential students from states with whom we don’t have agreements. I was surprised to learn that some states even require hefty (up to $1,000) fees to register your online course/program in their state.

It seems that possibilities offered by ever-changing technology are often hampered by challenges that are two steps behind where the technology is. Maybe the pace will never be equal, and maybe that’s not a bad thing altogether. It keeps everyone on their toes.

4 Responses

  1. [Email from Claude Almansi on 10.23.12]
    Hi Lynne,

    Your article on obsolete laws hampering new education forms is great,
    but perhaps you’d like to add something about Minnesota changing its
    mind? See
    as the author says, even if that legal hurdle in that state has been
    removed, there are bound to be other ones creeping up.


  2. State authorization is an issue that institutions will need to continue to follow. States with regulations expect institutions to follow their laws prior to enrolling students in their state.

    Note that Minnesota’s about face covers only free and non-credit courses, which makes sense. The problem for the MOOC-world is that many of them are moving into the non-free an for-credit world. States won’t be backing off then.

    You can learn more about state authorization at:

    Russ Poulin

  3. Thanks for adding my e-mail comment, Jim (I only sent it by e-mail in case Lynn and you might prefer to make an update within the post). And thanks for your reply and very useful link about this complex issue, Russ.

    However, Russ, once courses move “into the non-free”, that removes the first O (for Open) in MOOC. And this, as a consequence, is likely to remove the M (for Massive) as well: what you’re left with is an OC, an online course like those already offered for years, and rightly regulated by laws to protect people from being swindled out of their money, just as for a brick and mortar course.

    The interesting thing about Coursera – the course which Minnesota did the about-face about – is that it is both for free and for credit. That’s a relatively new configuration. And while the existing prestige of the universities involved in Coursera guarantee seriousness in the certification offered, what about other similar courses?

    “Relatively new” configuration: in 2011 I followed such a for free and for credit course offered to educators by Didasca,org about Google Apps: see “Beware of Privacy and Other Issues When Signing Up for Free Courses. True, it was for free, in a manner, i.e. we didn’t have to pay for entering the course – but we were requested to write testimonials to boost a for-paying version was proposing to businesses – so there was no monetary swindle. However, the certification offered was not recognized in Italy, and fortunately at that, considering that the course was just a diluted rehash of what Google itself explains more efficiently about Google Apps.

    And before that, in 2007, there was the for-free for-credit “IT-fitness” initiative: an idea of Bill Gates, implemented in Germany – see – and initially in Switzerland too, and unfortunately co-launched by Microsoft and, respectively by Chancelor Angela Merkel in Germany and Doris Leuthard (then minister of economy) in Switzerland. An Old Father William concept: you first took the test – which allowed you to download a certificate – and if you weren’t satisfied with the result, you could do the “free” online tuts, hosted on Microsoft sites, and requiring the Explorer browser for access, then re-do the test. The test was ludicrous, and there was no monitoring whatsoever of the test: see the IT-Fitness certificate in the name of Donald Duck (PDF), with the endorsing logo of SECO (Swiss secretariat for the economy, a federal body), I thus got. The Swiss version of IT-Fitness seems to have disappeared, but the German one still exists, and had apparently delivered 4 million such certificates by 2010, according to

    So should citizens be protected by law from wasting time on similarly worthless “for-free” for-credit schemes, even though there is no money swindle involved? How could such a law distinguish between them and serious ones, like Coursera?

  4. […] One of the marvelous things about the Internet is that it allows people to take courses anywhere anytime. While the Internet may give us that capability, the reality is that there are other issues that come into play.  […]

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