By Jennifer Goodman of Inside Higher Ed
It makes sense that the College of Coastal Georgia math professor and OER (open educational resources) advocate German Vargas relies on open educational materials to help reduce textbook and material costs for courses like calculus and trigonometry. But he's equally passionate about the importance of open materials for courses in economics, philosophy and sociology – and not just for his college's students.
Vargas, who has been assistant vice president for academic student engagement at Coastal Georgia since October 2015, is meeting with instructors and department heads at colleges across Georgia to share his message that OER makes sense in every discipline.
Vargas's mission started a few years ago. While serving as chair of the Coastal Georgia math department, his interest in open materials led him to evaluate dozens of OpenStax textbooks to determine whether they would be right for math courses at his Brunswick, Ga., college. He was impressed by the quality of the peer-reviewed materials, and realized they could save students a significant amount of money -- some textbooks for high-enrollment classes like pre-calculus and trigonometry are $350 each. He presented his findings to the college's regent advisory committee, which approved his idea to use open materials.
"I have the fortune to work with faculty who are very progressive and not afraid of change," said Vargas, who has been teaching college-level math for 13 years. "Once they heard the narrative behind all this -- 'Are we going to help students to be able to stop paying $250 or $350 for textbooks?' -- they were all on board."
Starting With the Core
In the spring of 2015, the math department adopted open materials for four highly enrolled Coastal Georgia courses -- algebra, trigonometry, statistics/probability and pre-calculus. A Textbook Transformation grant from Affordable Learning Georgia helped fund the work of Vargas and fellow math team members Jose Lugo, Laura Lynch, Jamil Mortada, Treg Thompson and Victor Vega.
An analysis after the semester of the students in Coastal Georgia's OER math courses found no difference in their success or satisfaction from previous groups that used traditional textbooks.
"This was very positive," Vargas said. "We weren't claiming the delivery was going to be any better than a regular textbook, but we were very successful at trying to hit another component, which was reducing costs."
The project team estimated the switch is reducing costs to learners in the high-enrollment classes by a total of $350,000 per year. (This estimate is based on if every student bought the book at full price; however, Vargas noted that some learners rent the book and others do without it.)
With another state grant and institutional support from faculty members and the administration, Vargas helped the college adopt open or low-cost educational resources in 12 other core curriculum courses, including macroeconomics, psychology and sociology. The initiative, he said, is generating more than $649,000 in total student savings per year.
"Our goal was to have as many different types of courses use open resources," he added.
Bumps in the Road
Vargas said that switching to open materials has not been without glitches. Coastal Georgia math faculty members said they missed the PowerPoint presentations that come with most traditional textbooks, so Vargas and his colleagues developed presentations to replace them.
The free online homework system that Vargas's math team selected had some issues, too, and was not effective on such a large scale, so the project leaders replaced it with homework modules from WebAssign.
Not only is Vargas supporting OER implementation within math-related subjects, he also visits other departments at his college to talk about the benefits of open materials. About a year ago, Affordable Learning Georgia asked Vargas to take his OER message about math courses statewide as one of the organization's Campus Champions.
Vargas spends a lot of time on the road promoting open resources for math courses, and some have questioned his motives. "Several people have asked if I was getting a cut from pushing these materials because here I am a math professor talking about open materials in subjects like biology, history and psychology," he said, noting he is not paid by OpenStax.
"The idea of the grant was that as [Coastal Georgia] adopted open materials we would have them available for anybody beyond our institutions and even the state through OER Commons," he said. "A lot of faculty members are excited to hear about [open resources] and said they didn't know that so much was available for free."
Vargas has done much to push the needle toward open education at Georgia's colleges and universities, said Jeff Gallant, program manager for Affordable Learning Georgia. "He's gone door to door to these departments letting them know there are materials they can use and support to help them learn how to use them," he said.
To further encourage and support the evaluation of new OER alternatives, the Coastal Georgia academic affairs office recently launched an OER Reviewer Initiative, in which faculty members receive a $100 stipend for each review of an OER material, an idea the college picked up from the University of Michigan, which supports the OpenMichigan platform.
"You don't have to adopt the material, just evaluate it and make the determination if it's viable for your course," Vargas said. "It's a lot like the way traditional textbook publishers pay professors to review their books."
Vargas still makes time to teach, and these days he's working with independent studies math students. Some of his learners recently created a virtual reality graphing calculator program, and he said he was delighted when they told him they wanted to make it available for free.
In the future, Vargas hopes to find a way to offer students computers pre-loaded with all of the materials needed for their course schedule. "How cool would it be that as they come to orientation they all get a tablet with all the books they need loaded on it from the get-go?" he said.