Digital books may be the answer to the high price of school textbooks
Can an e-textbook campaign help check rising costs for parents under pressure, asksElaine Lau
Raymond Jao Ming, a school technical officer, is relieved that he has just one child still in school. His youngest daughter is about to start Form One and her textbooks will cost him HK$2,800 - not a hefty sum compared to what many middle-class parents spend on their children, but a significant dent for lower-income families.
It was even tougher going when all his three children were at school. Jao resents the expenditure, saying that textbook costs have continued to rise while the content has remained largely unchanged.
"Most of the 20 books for my daughter are new editions, which means we can't rely on second-hand books. When my three children were studying, we had to scrimp to pay for textbooks," he says.
Parents' representatives have been engaged in a tussle with publishers over rising textbook prices in recent years. This year has been no different. According to a Consumer Council survey of 944 textbooks commonly used in Hong Kong schools, costs have risen 3.8 per cent from last year for secondary school titles, and 2.1 per cent for primary titles.
Jao, who represents parents on a government advisory body on school textbooks, condemns publishers for unscrupulous practices.
The new editions cost more, but usually involve only slight adjustments. Because the tweaks result in pagination changes, Jao says, this stops students from using second-hand textbooks because teachers refer to particular pages during lessons. Packaging the books (or "bundling", as it is often called) with additional materials like CD-roms and flashy exercise sheets also pushes up the costs. "Many of the materials are left unused at the end of the term," Jao says.
To break the publishers' grip on the HK$1.5 billion textbook market and drive down prices, the Education Bureau set aside HK$50 million in June for an e-Textbook Market Development Scheme to nurture developers of e- textbooks.
The bureau aims to develop textbooks for 12 subjects through the scheme, which provides matching grants of up to HK$4 million to enterprises that win a bid to produce e-textbooks for a single subject.
Applications for the scheme close on September 24, and officials hope to issue the new texts in 2014.
Hong Kong's push to embrace digital textbooks came after South Korea announced last year that it would spend US$2 billion to convert all course material and text for its school system to a variety of digital formats by 2015.
But Joseph Siu Kwong-wai, assistant digital project director with Oxford University Press, says the government has underestimated the cost of developing digital textbooks and the HK$50 million officials have allocated will only yield e-textbooks with very basic features.
"For digital textbooks, we need to create several versions to accommodate different operating systems and browsers. A simple PDF-version is meaningless as students merely read from a screen instead of a paper page," Siu says.
"We are now using third-generation PDFs, which allow all kinds of files for animation and audio to be embedded. The cost of after-sales technical support to schools is also huge."
The publisher is working with Fung Kai Innovative School to develop e-textbooks for English. School supervisor Ma Siu-leung says their role is to offer advice on how the digital content should be laid out.
"Our teachers convene meetings with publishers who provide the content to us for free, and we tell them where to insert animation clips and other files.
"While publishers have cost concerns, replacing physical textbooks with digital ones can push down prices. There's no need to print a new set of books every year as everything is updated virtually. The cutting out of bricks-and-mortar bookshops and storage space can also save cost."
But Ip Kin-yuen, chief executive of the Professional Teachers' Union, is less sanguine about the effectiveness of the government's campaign to curb textbook prices.
"Publishers have to invest heavily in infrastructure to develop digital textbooks. Their prices might not be lower than those of paper books. Publishing textbooks also carries a lot of risk. A publisher has to produce textbooks for less popular subjects as well as popular ones. They have to use profits from popular subjects to make up for the loss from publishing books for the less popular ones."
Ip, who is contesting the education functional constituency seat in the upcoming Legco election, says the problem of costly textbook is also seen in US universities, where the people who set lists of textbooks are professors who do not care how much the books cost.
"The same situation is happening in Hong Kong. The teachers who draw up the textbook list are not sensitive to the prices charged by publishers at all," he says.
To address the problem, Ip suggests officials should look to Australia, Northern Europe and the mainland.
"They include textbooks as part of the free education provided by the government. Parents do not have to pay for them at all. If the government allocates funds to schools which have to draw up a textbook list according to a budget, teachers would be more sensitive to prices. And publishers would have to set competitive prices in response to that."
Since the government spends HK$1 billion a year just to operate 230 new outdoor lifts, Ip says, it can surely afford the HK$1.5 billion textbook costs.
Besides, with publishers forced to be more circumspect in price setting, he estimates textbook spending will drop to HK$1.2 billion a year.
Meanwhile, the Open University has also initiated an Open Textbook Project to help bring down textbook costs. The HK$17 million programme, which launched in April, has been recruiting textbook editors to develop content and hopes to release a set of 12 digital English textbooks after three years.
The university plans to expand the programme to other subjects, says Yuen Kin-sun, head of its educational technology and publishing unit.
"We will adopt the flexible copyright system called Creative Commons [which allows content creators to share their knowledge or creative efforts gratis while retaining certain rights to the works]. Those who use the textbook just have to give us attribution and avoid commercial use."
The textbooks will be available on paper as well as in digital formats, Yuen adds. "It's a compromise. Going all digital would be too challenging. But sticking solely to physical textbooks deprives students of the chance to learn from multimedia [sources]. Textbooks are easy to make. There's no way one should cost HK$200," says Yuen.
Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School in Sham Shui Po has introduced a scheme for students to share recommended Chinese and English readers - compilations of short stories used in language classes - over three years.
"The school does not use any textbooks for Chinese, English and maths because our teachers develop the learning materials themselves," says principal Lau Siu-ling. "However, we use a lot of readers. It would be a waste if the readers were discarded after a year while still in good condition."
Because the books would be used for three years, each student would just have to pay a third of the cost, Lau says. Other school boards would do well to take a leaf out of the Choi Kai Yau school book.