Coursera is a free site offering courses in a variety of subjects from over 30 universities including Princeton and Columbia. It was founded by two Stanford Computer Science professors with the hope of giving open access to the world’s best education in order to allow anyone and everyone to improve themselves through learning. Unfortunately for residents of Minnesota, their state’s office of higher education doesn’t share the Stanford professors’ enthusiasm about free college courses.

Talking to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education said all postsecondary institutions offering courses in Minnesota were sent letters. Those letters informed the institutions of Minnesota Statutes 136A.61 to 136A.71 and told them they cannot offer courses to state residents without authorization from the State of Minnesota. Grimes went on to say: “This has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years) and applies to online and brick-and-mortar postsecondary institutions that offer instruction to Minnesota residents as part of our overall responsibility to provide consumer protection for students.”

In fact, the statutes in question date back to 1975, two years before the Apple II was introduced, and decades before the internet became an integral part of everyday life. Perhaps Ms. Grimes and her fellow analysts at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education need to use a little common sense. Or better yet, petition for new law that’s actually relevant to the time. After all, the world does change after 37 years.

To clarify the situation though, Slate talked with George Roedler, the manager of institutional registration and licensing for the Minnesota Office of High Education. According to Roedler, the issue is not with Coursera, but with the universities that offer courses through Coursera. The universities, like I mentioned previously, need authorization and are required to pay a registration fee, which can supposedly range from a few hundred to several thousands of dollars, along with a $1200 annual renewal fee.

Roedler did go on to say that state residents shouldn’t be worried about signing up for courses online. “It’s just that the school is operating contrary to state law,” he stated.

This whole ordeal is quite ridiculous, as the law is meant to protect students from fly-by-night institutions (which I’m sure were a bigger problem in 1975). However, no student is getting scammed by Coursera since they’re a free service. It seems far-fetched for Minnesota to expect institutions to register with the state in order to offer free courses online of all places. One can only hope that the publicity makes them realize the error of their ways.

Update 10/20: Slate received a statement from Larry Pogemiller, the director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. It reads:

“Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera.”

And on the subject of updating the statute to recognize changes, he says:

“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. Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

Now, that didn’t take long. I have to tip my hat to Larry and others at Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education for dealing with this issue promptly. Just don’t let this sort of ridiculous situation happen again, Minnesota.