Massive open online courses were supposed to revolutionize — and democratize — higher education, Politico reports.

But two years since their debut, the initial buzz seems like nothing but hype.

Millions have signed up for online courses sponsored by elite colleges, yet they report high dropout rates and disappointing student performance among those who stick it out. A quietly released report last week on a partnership between San José State University and major course provider Udacity found that at-risk kids performed particularly poorly and students found the courses confusing.

Collective statistics aren’t available, but by one tracker’s account, most...

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