What is the largest university in the United States? Ohio State or another large public research university? No, the University of Phoenix, a for-profit and largely online institution, is the nation’s largest university with more than 319,000 undergraduate students and more than 60,000 graduate students.

David Brooks writes with cautious optimism about what he describes as a coming “tsunami” in education–the transition of online learning from marginal to mainstream, even among elite universities. Read his essay here.

There are five question that come to mind in thinking about the mainstreaming of online education in the way we form undergraduate and graduate students for their vocations:

-How will online students experience community? One of the benefits of a residential university is a common life with shared experiences rooted in learning. How will this be created (can it?) for online students?

-What will this mean for faculty? Good teachers are more than talking heads. Sure, information transfer can happen virtually, but something is missing in the interpersonal interaction that takes place in real time and unmediated by technology.

What will this mean for the humanities? Online education more closely mirrors the working environment of a business. Intuitively, it seems easier for business and other professional disciplines to be taught this way. It’s a little more difficult for me to envision reading and discussing Hagel that way.

What will this mean for campus ministry? How will the work of making disciples and sharing the Gospel happen in a virtual community? How would it be different? How will it be the same?

What will this mean for local culture in indigenous contexts? If, as Brooks suggests, American universities will be able to exert a considerable influence in teaching students across the globe, we have to pose the question: is this exclusively good? Is there a down side? I don’t know. It seems to me that the internet has a remarkable flattening power that is not innately good (I don’t suppose it’s innately bad either).

What do you think about the future of education? Are you hopeful?