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Tuesday, December 15, 2015, 09:40

A matter of publish or perish

By Ming Yeung

While the Education Bureau is keen to introduce e-textbooks, schools and publishers have several hurdles to contend with before they are ready for the digital revolution. Ming Yeung reports.

A matter of publish or perish

Hong Kong’s small, tightly-knit textbook publishing industry has surrendered. For a while it had resisted the entry of electronic textbooks in school classrooms. Now the industry, in a 180-degree reversal, has embraced e-textbooks as the “way of the future”.

Traditional publishers see the present as a good time to develop e-textbooks, especially after the government made big investments in upgrading information technology infrastructure in schools. Schools too are warming up to the possibility of introducing e-learning in classrooms.

Not too long ago, parents who had budgeted for their children’s education struggled to keep up with the spiraling costs of textbooks. The costs of school textbooks climbed at a rate wildly disproportionate to that of inflation, despite government incentives offered to publishers to keep prices down.

Erwin Huang, chief executive officer of WebOrganic, said a few traditional publishers monopolized more than 70 percent of the textbook and exercise book market for decades. The publishers were sucking in about HK$4 billion a year from bewildered parents, their sales tactic being to bundle textbooks with teaching aids and so-called study guides, sending prices into the stratosphere. The government’s plea to bring the prices down fell on deaf ears. Publishers insisted the cost of research and development to keep school textbooks updated was high.

Government incentives

In 2012 the Education Bureau (EDB) introduced the e-Textbook Market Development Scheme (EMADS) to undercut the publishers’ tight monopoly. Independent groups and individuals were offered funding to write e-textbooks for the electronic age. 

Some HK$50 million was earmarked to encourage non-profit organizations to develop e-textbooks matching the local curriculum. Each applicant was subsidized to a maximum of HK$4 million on a matching 50-50 basis for the development of a set of e-textbooks. For example, if the company were to invest HK$2 million in the project, the government would chip in HK$2 million as well.

Thirty projects were approved for the first phase of development.    Fourteen of these candidates dropped out, citing the high risks and insufficient funding to complete the work. In 2013, the second phase of EMADS was   inaugurated. Today, there are 26 sets of approved e-textbooks available on the recommended list.

An EDB spokesman said, “Upon the completion of Phase Two of the EMADS in mid-2016, a further eight sets of e-textbooks will be available.”

All organizations joining EMADS were required to sign contracts, binding them to established pricing and content guidelines.

Erwin Huang said the strict requirements dissuaded big publishing houses from taking part. “In a free market, it is impossible to micromanage prices,” he stressed.

Wilton Fok Wai-tung, head of the e-Learning Development Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said some developers found it too hard to fulfill all the capability requirements listed by the government. One major hurdle was integration of online and offline learning modes. Another challenge came from the explosion of mobile devices, demanding solutions to integrate smartphones and other mobile products into classroom instruction. The cross-platform requirement, which allows e-textbooks to run on different devices, discouraged some developers as well, Fok conceded.

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