Welcome to Gravenhurst

OK, so on the one hand we have online education growing by leaps and zounds, until anyone who really wants to do a quality university degree can do so from the comfort and security of their parents’ basement. On the other hand, we have the quite natural desire of 18-year-olds to get out of said basement and hang out with each other. What can we do to help them?

Welcome to Gravenhurst, a small town in the heart of cottage country two hours north of Toronto. (I could equally well say “welcome to Bracebridge” or to Parry Sound or to any of a dozen other places, but I’ll stick to Gravenhurst for now.) Every summer, Gravenhurst is filled with vacationing urbanites who either own, rent, or visit the lakeside cottages around it. They buy stuff at its stores, they drink in its pubs, they keep its summer theater alive—and then they go home, usually around Labor Day.

Would it be possible to create a centralized campus for decentralized learning in a place like Gravenhurst? I.e., could someone build a few dorms and labs and a gym to give students the social zing of living in a college town, and just skip all that stuff about professors and lectures and what-not? Students would take courses online from any provider (or mix of providers) they wanted, and get their degree from the course provider (which could be a big-name school like Stanford, Oxford, or whatever). When it came time to dissect a frog or write an exam, though, they’d pay a small fee to their campus provider for facilities, supervision, or invigilation [1].

I think it makes sense from the town’s point of view: students would be arriving just as tourists left, and leaving as tourists arrived, so it would even out the town merchants’ cash flow. It might not appeal to students who crave the bright lights of the big city, but I think there are plenty of others who’d leap at the chance to be a five minute walk from boating, canoeing, hiking, and the rest of the great outdoors. (And of course you could set up a physical campus for virtual courses in a big city, too, it would just cost more, and you’d have a harder time getting the host city to think you were really important.)

So: is anyone already doing this? If so, I’d welcome pointers…

[1] I actually think that invigilation—i.e., exam supervision—is the key to this whole plan. Once online learning really matters, we’re going to see cheat-for-hire services appear (“Give me $50 and your login ID, I’ll write the calculus exam for you.”). Learning providers who want to maintain the value of their degrees or badges will need ways to prevent fraud, so there’ll be a need for people like notary publics (notaries public?) to provide such assurances.