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October 31, 2012

Regulators, accreditors go after online colleges

I am teaching my college course in American economic history the same way I did 47 years ago, which is similar to the way Socrates taught 2,400 years ago. I am far from unique.

There is nothing wrong with this, but the lack of productivity improvements in higher education today helps explain the rising cost of college. That may change with the innovative use of new technologies, which show promise in offering high-quality instruction at a low cost. Unfortunately, government regulation and accrediting organizations may slow that progress.

In Minnesota recently, the Office of Higher Education announced that no one could offer courses unless the state authorized them. Authorization involved filling out forms, getting bureaucratic approval and paying a fee. Since the online venture Coursera didn't do any of that, the education office insisted that Coursera update its "terms of service" to inform Minnesotans that they couldn't take Coursera's classes or, if they did, they had to complete most work outside the state.

The rule lasted one day. News of the clampdown led to a national outcry, and the restrictions were quickly lifted, allowing time for the Minnesota Legislature to update its education statutes. Coursera restored its normal terms of service.

It and other organizations such as Udacity, edX, the Saylor Foundation and StraighterLine offer free or low-cost digital instruction of relatively high quality. Coursera, founded by two Stanford University professors, has joined with prestigious private universities (including Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and Duke) as well as top state schools (such as the universities of Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia and Washington) to offer large numbers of courses — now about 200. EdX, a consortium that involves Harvard, MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Texas, is doing the same thing.

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