A HK$50 million subsidy is set to help not-for-profit publishers develop electronic textbooks in an attempt to rectify the distorted industry, which is dominated by a few big players, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung says.
The financial injection will also help the city catch up with the international trend towards digital textbooks, which can be 50 per cent cheaper than the print versions when the market matures, Suen says, citing a study last year.
Observers say e-books will never blossom without improving wireless networking facilities at public schools.
Suen said yesterday that the government hoped to set new rules and overhaul the market through the successful development of electronic books. 'During the last few years, the market has been dominated and has proven difficult to break up,' he said.
A few key players dominate the HK$1.5 billion textbook industry and they increase prices even during bad economic times. The Education Bureau recently banned a sales tactic under which schools receive free teaching materials from publishers, which then charged the cost of those items to pupils who bought the corresponding textbooks.
The publishers were initally made to separate the sale of textbooks from provision of free teaching materials to schools. But the bureau now says schools can take free textbooks for teachers, though they cannot accept free CDs and other unnecessary materials.
Publishers said the latest change would greatly affect their bottom line since teachers' textbooks accounted for 30 per cent of their total production costs.
Suen said production costs were expected to be halved if 30 per cent of schools used e-textbooks.
Under the scheme, 50 public primary and secondary schools, accounting for about 5 per cent of all government schools, will take part in a study to examine the effectiveness of digital teaching in classrooms.
Not-for-profit publishers will receive HK$50 million to help develop such textbooks.
Leung Tak-wai teaches at San Wui Commercial Society School, a Sheung Wan primary school that has launched its own e-textbook trial.
Leung said a lack of hardware funding would impair the proposed digital textbook programme.
'If a new iPad book application is developed, people expect that at least two students can hold an iPad to interact with the application,' he said.
The school has received donations as well as used regular government funding to develop electronic teaching materials. Students will have several occasions each month to conduct classes where two people can share a device to learn.
An information technology professional said the seed fund would not be enough to rewrite the curriculum for major subjects.
Nor did the bureau mention how it would improve wireless infrastructure at schools, said Erwin Huang, chief executive of WebOrganic, which provides subsidised computing devices to poor students.
Huang said the HK$50 million was just 'a drop in a bucket'.
'Developing electronic textbooks requires a whole lot of manpower to rewrite the current curriculum to fit the local syllabus and local classrooms,' he said.
He was disappointed that the electronic textbook scheme was not announced along with a proposal to upgrade the city's 1,000 schools.
'Few schools in Hong Kong have professional wireless networks. Many are using network infrastructure developed 10 years ago during the Tung Chee-hwa era,' he said.