Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



October 2012

Overgovernment: No Free Learnin’ Edition

Written by , Posted in Education

Technology has made information more accessible than ever. It is also providing potential answers to the problem of exploding tuition costs and student loan debt. Which is to say, alternative education models are in the nascent stages. An example is Coursera, which offers free online courses from top universities. Who could object to that? Government, of course (Hat-tip: Reason):

Coursera offers free, online courses to people around the world, but if you live in Minnesota, company officials are urging you to log off or head for the border.

The state’s Office of Higher Education has informed the popular provider of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, that Coursera is unwelcome in the state because it never got permission to operate there.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education offered this clarification/explanation:

George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher education, clarifies that his office’s issue isn’t with Coursera per se, but with the universities that offer classes through its website. 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.

“It’s not like we’re sending the police out if somebody signs up online,” Roedler adds. “It’s just that the school is operating contrary to state law.”

The law’s intent is to protect Minnesota students from wasting their money on degrees from substandard institutions, Roedler says. As such, he suspects that Coursera’s partner institutions would have little trouble obtaining the registration. He says he had hoped to work with Coursera to achieve that, and was surprised when they responded with the terms-of-service change notifying Minnesota residents of the law.

Setting aside that free courses still don’t fall within the scope of this argument, Minnesota apparently regards its citizens as morons. The plebes are simply too stupid to evaluate the quality of institutions without guidance from their government betters.

But what makes anyone think government knows how to evaluate institutions for quality better than potential customers? As is so often the case with licensing and registration schemes, the government is serving the role of protector of  established business interests at the expense of industry newcomers. The side effect of this approach is the suppression of innovation.