Remember when MOOCs, very specifically those offered through Coursera, Udacity, and edX (the so-called “xMOOCs”) were going to destroy higher education as we know it?

Well, a funny thing happened…

Turns out fancy content delivery platforms don’t get the job done. Who knew?

From the article linked above, which reports on a new study about xMOOCs:

The study suggests that MOOCs may encourage passive learning, with students failing to integrate the scientific knowledge they learned through the MOOC with practical, on-the-job learning.

We didn’t need to wait for this study and we should never rely on any one study as a warrant for knowledge claims. Additional evidence had been starting to trickle in, though, even before this study.

Consider that in a December 2013 hagiography about Sebastian Thrun in Fast Company, the founder of Udacity is quoted as saying:

I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial… But the data was at odds with this idea.

That Fast Company article states that Thrun approached the low completion rate problem in a few ways, including the hiring of mentors, “…many of them former academics looking for a change, to moderate class forums and offer help via live chats.” Real-time, human support? Wild idea.

Consider also a Slate piece about a 17 year-old Battushig Myanganbayar from Mongolia who, at age 15, aced an edX MOOC and who then ended up as a student at MIT and an employee with edX.  When given a chance to speak with edX staff about his experiences, “[t]he edX staff learned that Myanganbayar spent about a quarter of the time he invested in the class scouring the Web for supplementary material, essentially using free websites to teach himself the high-level math he needed.” In other words, the course content was insufficient. There’s more though:

He also had some old-fashioned help. His principal had invited Tony Kim, a graduate of Stanford University, to lead daily help sessions at Myanganbayar’s high school to supplement the online course. So essentially, Myanganbayar’s MOOC had a really good teaching assistant—not a perk offered to the other 149,990-some people in the class

In other words, to “ace” the MOOC, he also needed daily, face-to-face help sessions from a Stanford graduate. It doesn’t stop there:

He also did something else that few MOOC students take on: He produced his own lecture videos, in Mongolian, to help his classmates. “I developed my own technique to do mini-lectures by myself,” he explains. He propped his iPhone on a bookshelf and used its camera to film overhead video of his pen on the page as he completed homework problems and explained his work aloud.

That’s all it takes to “ace” a MOOC.

Now, along comes Stanford University President John Hennessy who has seen the light. Remember, Stanford is the place that spawned Coursera AND Udacity. During a Q&A session at a summit about online learning, Hennessy appears to have discovered this thing called “communities of learners.”

Imagine that ‘Book of the Month Club’ becomes ‘Course of the Month Club. With a little bit of technology, a community of learners self-assembles around a course and forms a group. They do peer grading. They interchange. They exchange conversations and they learn the material together. I think we’ll see this happening. It would be a wonderful thing and great for the world.

Communities of learners self-assemble around a course… What a novel idea. Or not.

Community matters, folks.