Glendale Community College grapples with online campus

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.

“Online learning provides for many of those people the only possible opportunity,” Glapa-Grossklag said. “Where is that person going to go except online?”

But at Glendale Community College, it's a slow and steady march, rather than a mad dash, toward online courses.

Of the 1,800 classes offered at Glendale Community College, 161 are hybrid courses and just 80 are solely online.

“We're innovating in ways that are more purposeful than just trying to chase the online model,” said Michael Dulay, chairman of the college's social sciences department.

For the first time this year, the college created a distance education committee, but along the way, there have been quagmires.

For instance, Dulay said, the biology department has refused to teach its labs online.

“How do you dissect a frog online?” he said. “There's some interesting technology out there but you need to smell the formaldehyde.”

Meanwhile, many instructors in the social science department Dulay leads prefer the hybrid online course model in which students are required to show up on four Saturdays to work on projects together.

“We decided you can't take the ‘social' out of social sciences,” he said. “There's a richness that comes from being around people.”

Between all the Skype sessions and monthly meet ups, managing class work and schedules outside the actual classroom, it can take some getting used to for students as well.

Anna Asatryan — a freshman who enrolled in a hybrid ethnic studies class last semester — said the set up helped her juggle her 20-hour-a-week retail job with her school commitments.

“It was important for me to set up a schedule that was flexible,” she said. “I didn't put school second.”

Still, she was worried about connecting with the instructor, since “I'm one of those people always asking random questions.”

But she was pleasantly surprised by the “high level” of interaction afforded by an online chat room that allowed students to respond to questions with answers they could all read. They also took turns speaking online.

“We got, in a sense, more interaction,” Asatryan said.

Thirty-seven percent of community college students said they enrolled in at least one distance education class because of the convenience, according to a 2011 survey by the California Community College Chancellor's Office.

But convenience also comes with a cost.

It takes a strong technical staff to keep operations running smoothly, and campuses must regularly update their computer hardware.

“The idea that we have to bolster IT staff for this is a little disconcerting,” Dulay said.

Glendale Community College officials have pondered charging students a $3 fee that would help offset the costs, but they've been reluctant to institute it.

“I think four years ago, that would have been better,” Dulay said. “Today, $3 in this economy hurts a lot of students.”

Additionally, online courses — which exist in a realm that never sleeps — could have a huge impact on instructors.

“It can be much more time consuming because you're on 24/7,” Tirapelle said.


Follow Kelly Corrigan on on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.

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