I was very skeptical of this at the time (see, e.g. here and here). Sax tries to explain what went wrong. Here's McKibben on Sax.
The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education. Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”
At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.
Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”
The diagnosis fits with my perceptions as well. One of the problems MOOCs would always face, IMO, is that it left out how social an activity teaching and learning is. This is not so for everything, but it is so for many things, especially non-technical things. The problem is not the efficient transfer of information, but figuring out how to awaken the imaginative and critical sensibilities of students. (Note: these are harder to "test" than is the info transfer). The MOOCs conception treated students as "consumers" rather than "initiates." Ideas are not techniques. They need a different kind of exploration. Indeed, half of teaching is getting students to appreciate why something is important and that comes from the personal relation established between teacher and student and students to one another and student to teacher. This, at any rate, is Sax's view and if he is right then the failure of MOOCs as general strategies for education makes sense. Or, this would be a good reason for their failure.
BTW, there is a nice version of the relevant distinction in the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Brodie notes that 'education' comes from the latin 'ex ducare' (to lead out) where much of what goes on is better seen as 'intrusion' as in 'thrust in.' Information can be crammed, thrust, delivered. Education must be more carefully curated.
Like I said, I wish this were the reason for the end of MOOCs, but I doubt it. What probably killed them (if they are indeed dead) was likely their cost. They did not really save any money, though they shifted cash from one set of pockets to another. In other words, they were scam-like and the fad has run its day. Will it return? Almost certainly. We just need a new technological twist to all for repackaging of the stuff. Maybe when virtual reality is more prevalent it will serve as the new MOOC platform and we will see the hysteria/hype rise again. There is no end to technological utopias because of their sales value. So expect a rise of MOOCs or MOOC equivalents some time soon at a university near you. But don't expect much more the next time around.
BTW, the stuff on board games was fascinating. Is this really a thing?