The large-scale massive open online course (xMOOC) rose to prominence in 2012–13 on the promise that its outcomes would be better and cheaper than those of face-to-face university instruction. By late 2013, xMOOC educational claims had been largely discredited, though policy interest in ed-tech carried on. What can we learn about the future of ed-tech by analysing this eighteen-month period in higher education history? This article gathers different types of evidence to suggest several conclusions: MOOC momentum was propelled by an administrative failure to apply due diligence to xMOOC educational claims. The MOOC path was also smoothed by a confusion among key commentators between xMOOCs and small-scale ‘connectivity’ MOOCs that did show meaningful learning outcomes. At the same time, online courses do not overcome race-based disparities of outcome and in some cases make them worse. In addition, student use of online courses appears to be instrumental, even cynical, further limiting their educational value. MOOCs will be back in modified form to endanger educational equity and quality unless faculty members articulate explicit goals and standards for public higher education to which ed-tech can be held accountable.