Development of digital textbooks 'to cost millions'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am


Non-profit organisations will have to spend millions of dollars before they can qualify for a new government scheme to develop high-quality digital textbooks, an expert on electronic learning said yesterday.

The government has announced a push to promote e-books as a way to break the stranglehold of textbook publishers, who have been accused of pushing up prices.

Wilton Fok, head of the e-learning technology development laboratory at the University of Hong Kong, said he welcomed the government's announcement on Tuesday of a HK$50 million subsidy for registered charities and universities to publish e-textbooks, but had reservations about its chances of success.

Fok's warning on the cost of e-book development echoes comments earlier this week by Erwin Huang, chief executive of WebOrganic, which provides subsidised computing devices to cash-strapped students. He said the HK$50 million was just 'a drop in a bucket'.

Fok said: 'There will be many issues - copyright is one. You cannot expect people to contribute content to [the publisher] voluntarily.'

Producing e-textbooks would require technological expertise as well as content, he said, and bringing the two sides together would take effort.

Fok says the maximum HK$4 million grant for each subject area - which the developer must match - is 'barely enough'.

'[For] all of the costs [of producing an e-textbook], including research, development and accreditation procedures, HK$4 million is not really enough. But to create a website, it is enough,' he said.

He believes the scheme will succeed only if non-profit organisations see enough of a financial incentive to join the market.

The laboratory recently began a project bringing together engineers, academics and teachers from primary and secondary schools to develop a software platform which can be used to produce digital teaching materials.

The software platform was created at a cost of HK$200,000 before the cost of content is factored in. So far, about 50 public schools have signed up for a free trial, under which teachers can use the platform's core functions to create teaching materials.

Ken Law Kam-yun, a project officer responsible for the lab's interactive learning area, said the move towards digital teaching also required schools to improve hardware, such as ensuring the wireless connectivity was good enough. He said e-textbooks would have to be 'user friendly' if they were to win favour with schools, teachers and parents.

All organisations that join the government's e-textbookscheme will have to sign a contract for between four and six years, covering areas including pricing and the content of the study materials. They will not be allowed to deviate from the price set for the duration of the contract.