The idea first came to light when the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission said it is already experimenting with electronic textbooks. The commission was responding to a suggestion from Huang Shanming, an advisor to the city government.
It plans to first hold trials in a limited number of schools and subjects. After it develops a framework for classes based on e-textbooks, it would like to make the new teaching material widespread.
A number of schools around the world have already begun to use e-textbooks. Since 2004, publishers have been producing digital versions of textbooks approved by Singapore's Ministry of Education for use in the island nation. Last year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines when he said he would like to replace some high school science and math texts with free, open source digital versions as a way of combating the state's budget woes.
At least one other school in China is experimenting with e-textbooks. Starting in the second half of last year, students at Xujiang Elementary School in Zhejiang's Yiwu City have taken a class once a week on the history of industrial arts using an e-textbook.
The class started out using a relatively simple e-textbook described by a teacher at the school as "flipbook animation." But teachers at the school, working in conjunction with the city's education department, later developed a multimedia version that is more interactive and includes video.
One of the main concerns about Shanghai's plan is cost. Not all students have or can even afford a laptop or an electronic reader, and most school districts do not have the budget to supply them.
But the plan could start out small, and when the price of e-readers goes down, it should save money. Huang said that from the first year of primary school to high school graduation, students in Shanghai use a total of 213 textbooks that cost a total of $256. The East China Normal University Press, which has done research into e-textbooks, said that if mass produced, the total cost of the books could be brought down to around $146.