Publishers want bigger piece of the action as schools shift to e-books

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am

Publishers and hi-tech firms are demanding a bigger slice of the action in the government's HK$140 million drive to switch the city's publicly funded schools over to e-textbooks.

Creating a central depository and an e-commerce platform for e-learning materials were among the key recommendations of the working group on the development of e-learning resources, which released its report last month.

Educational publishers want the government to build a payment gateway on the Education City website, the educational resource portal that will host the central depository, so they can put their e-books up for sale alongside free learning materials.

The city's school textbook sector, which has an annual turnover of HK$1.5 billion, stands to be squeezed by the switch to e-textbooks and other measures proposed by the working group. Publishers say they will have to move into e-textbook production to maintain their profit margins of 5 to 6 per cent, but say it is too early to put a figure on the size of the e-textbook market. The Educational Publishers Association has told the Education Bureau its support for the e-learning plan is conditional on the government adopting a business model that allows publishers to lodge their e-books in the central depository.

Association president Wong Wai-man said: 'We have got to ensure that the government has some sort of payment gateway on this e-learning platform so that publishers can receive payment for their materials. It may be on a subscription basis, whether for schools or individual students. It has yet to be worked out. But I think the more convenient way is to charge a school according to the number of classes.'

Mr Wong said the proposed HK$50,000 funding over three years for each school to buy e-learning materials was 'totally insufficient' and the government needed to increase it to create a viable e-textbook market.

The working group recommended that the government help set up a cross-sector consortium to promote collaboration between schools, publishers and IT firms.

The Information Technology Federation has already launched its own independent e-learning consortium that aims to define technical and educational standards for e-textbooks and materials. The federation is calling on the government to consult directly with the IT sector on property rights, privacy, current technology and the feasibility of different products and services for the schools' e-learning platform.

The consortium of 16 technology firms, six IT trade associations and five educational associations is preparing a directory of e-learning materials and e-textbooks that are already available, which is due to go online next month. The group will try to identify the best solutions for the hardware, file formats, publishing software and network needed to deliver e-learning across the city's 900-odd government and aided schools.

Hardware options included a PC-based approach, in which pupils could access e-textbooks via their home computer, a notebook or a school computer, and e-readers using the latest e-ink technology that simulates the look and feel of a book.

Publishing issues to be resolved included what file format e-textbooks should have and how to deliver them to pupils. Fong said the network options included upgrading schools to the current generation of Wi-fi (802.11n) and switching to a 3G mobile phone system.

'Schools would need a Wi-fi capacity of at least 50 to 144 megabits per second in order to provide all students with access to e-textbooks,' he said. 'And the backbone from the school to the internet would have to have a capacity of at least 500 megabits to one gigabit per second. Some schools are not far away from having this specification. However, to get all schools up to this technical standard would take about one to two years and is likely to cost HK$50,000 to HK$300,000 per school.'

Education Bureau officials insist that they will provide all the materials in the depository for the next three to five years, while collections for primary and junior secondary pupils are completed, although publishers may get involved later. She Mang, chief curriculum development officer for IT in education, said e-learning materials were being collected and mapped onto the Hong Kong curriculum by his officers, and would be made available free.

'For primary and junior secondary, the publishers will follow our process,' he said. 'But whether we need to get involved in the new senior secondary curriculum is not certain. It may be time for the publishers to pick up the baton. We hope that they will develop enough of their own experience to build their own skeleton of resources without needing a model provided by the government.'

Undersecretary for Education Kenneth Chen Wei-on, who is chairman of the working group, said the one-off grant to schools should be enough to cover the extra short-term costs of switching to e-learning materials, but 'if they need more money in future to buy resources, we will provide it'. However, he insisted that the government would not get involved in setting the charging mechanism for e-textbooks, saying 'the market will take care of itself'.

And although a key objective of the e-learning review was to reduce the burden of rapidly rising textbook prices on parents, Chen said there was no guarantee they would pay less for e-textbooks. 'I'm not sure what the government can do to ensure parents pay less, short of introducing price controls, which we are not prepared to do,' he said.