GCC's Fabiola Torres

Glendale Community College Ethnic Studies Instructor Fabiola Torres in a classroom that is equiped with 30 iPads for srudents to use. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / February 19, 2013)

The way higher education is administered across the nation has changed dramatically as more colleges pump up their online course offerings. Nationwide, 32% of all college students have taken an online course. In California, the figure is closer to 27%.

But try to break that trend down to the local community college level and a stark juxtaposition emerges.

At Glendale Community College, online education options are growing but officials are moving at a measured pace.

“Distance [education] isn't the panacea that everybody thinks it is, including the governor,” said Mary Mirch, vice president of instructional services for Glendale Community College.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing online courses as a way to help students move efficiently through a crowded system while also curbing costs.

“He thinks it's going to be the most cost-effective way to provide education. Basically, the only thing that you don't have to have with distance is the brick and mortar,” Mirch said.

Compared to other campuses, Glendale Community College has some distance to go to get where Brown is headed. Less than 1% of the courses at the college are solely online. Compare that to the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, where after 14 years of growing its Internet portfolio, more than 12% of its classes are online.

“We know that students need flexibility,” said James Glapa-Grossklag, dean of distance education for the college. “We need to offer classes when it is convenient for our students, and not when it is convenient for us.”

At Pasadena City College, online education options are only now starting to ripple through the student course catalog.

For the first time last year, the college started offering solely online classes. Previously, it had offered a smattering of hybrid courses that were partly taught on-campus.

Leslie Tirapelle, director of distance education for the college, is working with administrators to allow students to take all of their core classes online. Under the program, students would be assessed to determine if they are naturally apt for distance learning.

“My goal is within the next two years we will have that in place,” she said. “We're very positive about the direction we're going.”

Millions of students — all of them with different schedules, job demands, possible physical disabilities and other challenges — have been pushing colleges in that direction for years.

In the U.S., 6.7 million — or 32% of college students — have taken at least one online class, according to a study published this year by the Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group.

In California, the Community College Chancellor's Office estimates that 27% of students will take an online class this year compared to the 12% of students who did so in 2006.

Policy makers and lawmakers have taken notice, seeing a way to meet student demands while also addressing the pressing problem facing nearly all campuses: overcrowding.

Already, nearly half of all California community college classes feature an online component, officials say. And 9% of all courses are online, according to the Community College Chancellor's Office.

The 112 community colleges may also soon share a “virtual campus,” an online portal that could be made possible through Brown's state budget proposal.

Proponents say online education promises to open up access to higher education for people with disabilities.