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Minnesota Office of Higher Ed un-bans free online classes, but is that a good thing?

Said Pogemiller: "Our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they're free."
Said Pogemiller: "Our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they're free."

A day after generating a shitstorm of bad publicity with its announcement that free online classes would be banned in Minnesota, the state Office of Higher Education reversed course on Friday and un-banned Coursera and other sites of its ilk.

SEE ALSO:
-- Minnesota Office of Higher Education bans free online classes in head-scratching move
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The reversal represented a victory for common sense, but some argue there was actually a bit of wisdom in the OHE's initial decision to ban free online classes.

First, via Slate, here's OHE Director and former Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller explaining the reversal:

Pogemiller: "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."

He added that the 20-year-old statute in question clearly didn't envision free online classes from accredited universities, saying: "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."

But in correspondence with City Pages, Wes Burdine, a University of Minnesota English Ph.D. candidate, argued that free online courses are "a technocratic ruse being used to help defund public education rather than educate."

Burdine cited an Atlantic piece discussing the high non-completion rates characteristic of MOOCs (short for Massive Open Online Courses). From the piece:

Last summer, when Stanford announced its free, online artificial intelligence course, much of the attention celebrated just how *many* people would be able to partake of the intellectual delights normally reserved for the Stanford student body. "Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course," the New York Times announced. The story led, "A free online course at Stanford University on artificial intelligence, to be taught this fall by two leading experts from Silicon Valley, has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe -- a class nearly four times the size of Stanford's entire student body."

The number of those enrolled would eventually top out at 160,000 students, and other online courses followed suit, trumpeting one by one the massive numbers of people wanting to get in on the goods.

But the massive enrollment numbers have not been trailed by massive completion rates. About 35,000 people (or a little more than 20 percent) finished Stanford's AI course. The Times [notes] that the debut course of MIT's experiment in free online education had a similar experience. "Of the 154,763 who registered for 'Circuits and Electronics,' fewer than half even got as far as looking at the first problem set, and only 7,157 passed the course," says Tamar Lewin in an interview with MIT's Anant Agarwal. Likewise, UC Berkeley professor David Patterson said that 3,500 people of 50,000 registered passed his online course. Across the board, online classes (or MOOCs, as they are sometimes called, meaning Massive Open Online Courses) are seeing consistently high drop-out rates.

"I think the main point is that MOOCs are an experiment right now, but people are taking them to be some sort of technological savior of education (e.g. Thomas Friedman)," Burdine wrote.

"Perhaps a ban on these courses is bureaucratically obnoxious, but it's key to remember that just because it makes for a clever TED Talk doesn't mean it is good for education," he continued. "Making public universities cheap and top-notch -- that's how we build a more educated Minnesota -- not by getting a couple of white, male professors from Stanford lecture via the internet to students around the world."


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