Of MOOCS and Minnesotans

A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by  – Of Mice and Men

Last month a drama unfolded within the span of 24 hours as the Minnesota Legislature moved first to ban, then to allow the website Coursera to operate, within its state limits. Because Coursera is an internet company and delivers content through the internet, you might ask yourself just how Minnesota planned to block Coursera. Perhaps the legislature asked themselves the same question before deciding to reverse course. The more intriguing issue here is that Minnesota regarded Coursera as a threat to established institutions of higher education with Minnesota.

Minnesota requires educational institutions which operate within the state to register with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education prior to offering educational services within Minnesota. Per the Washington Post, the following letter was sent to Cousera by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education on August 17th:

Re: Online Courses

Dear Mr. Ng:

Thank you for your email and for speaking with me on August 15, 2012. Based on your email and our conversation it is the understanding of this office that Coursera facilitates the offering of online courses that have been developed by a number of universities and/or their faculty. It is further the understanding of this office that Coursera is not a college or university and does not offer or make available its own courses, degrees, or programs and is not therefore subject to Registration pursuant to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71 the Minnesota Private and Out-of-State Public Postsecondary Education Act.

It is the position of this office, however, that the colleges and universities that developed and are providing the courses to Coursera are subject to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71 the Minnesota Private and Out-of-State Public Postsecondary Education Act and that they would all be required to Register with this office if Minnesota residents are allowed to enroll in the classes facilitated by Coursera.

Coursera has proposed that the “Terms of Service Agreement” that users agree to in order to have access to the courses facilitated by Coursera be amended by adding the following statement:

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

The above statement allows students to self-certify their residency for purposes of enrolling or not enrolling in Coursera classes, and is satisfactory to this office.

Please note, I have added the word online to the second line of the “self-certify” statement above for the purposes of clarifying what it applied to.

This letter is not to be construed as diminishing the obligations of the Coursera, the colleges and universities that provide courses to Coursera, or the Minnesota Office Higher Education with regard to any undisclosed purposes or activities which may be subject to regulation by the State of Minnesota, including requiring any of the colleges or universities to Register pursuant to Minn. Stat. 136A.61 to 136A.71.

If you should have any questions about this matter please feel free to call me at … your convenience.

Yours truly,

George R. Roedler, Jr.

Manager, Institutional Registration & Licensing

Coursera responded by amending their terms of service:

“Notice for Minnesota Users

Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.”

After the letter and resulting change in the terms of service became public, the outcry forced the state of Minnesota to reverse course. Consider this the first salvo in a coming wave of challenges to the certifying power of established colleges and universities. Given the inflation in degree requirements for entry level jobs and the raw amount of student debt, a challenge of this sort was inevitable.

The debate is essentially an ontological dispute over the nature of what an institution of higher education might be. The letter which Mr. Roedler responded to indicates that in his previous correspondence with Coursera the company had argued that they were not an institution of higher education, but rather facilitates the delivery of existing content. However, on the Coursera website, it is claimed that “we offer courses” and their “pedagogical foundations” are given an entire page complete with academic citations testifying to their pedagogical effectiveness.

A large part of their pedagogical foundation is a reliance on frequent testing and quizzing. The domain of expertise Coursera draws from is Machine Learning – a branch of artificial intelligence.  The metaphor is computational – i.e. a rules based account of learning which posits a corpus of extent information absorbed more or less completely by a student, who is then judged by the amount of information they are able to recall at random intervals.

But, their efficiency comes wrapped in a set of troublesome pedagogical assumptions about “learning” which cannot be so easily set aside. I will write something more about this later, but the key question here is the one posed by educational theorists from Plato to Cremin: How does the organization of education (from the political to the pragmatic) contribute to “the good?”

To the extent that Mr. Roedler’s office is concerned with consumer protection, their job is to ask such questions of companies claiming, or denying, to educate or credential.