Last week, it was reported that a delegation of Apple executives had met with Turkish president Abdullah Gül. The group, which included Apple's Vice President for Education John Couch, is presumed to have discussed Apple's involvement in one of the largest tablet deployment initiatives in schools -- or any other environment.
The project, known as FAITH, first made headlines during the summer of 2011 when Turkish officials visited several U.S. companies, including Apple and Microsoft, to gauge interest in an aggressive plan to put 15 million tablets into the hands of Turkey's schoolchildren. That's about one tablet for every student.
The $4.5 billion project is expected to take four years, and Turkey's Industry Minister Nihat Ergun originally that the selected manufacturer would need to build the tablets in Turkey. It isn't clear if that requirement still stands, though Apple is believed to be willing to move the production of some iOS accessories to Turkey to secure the deal.
If Apple is selected as the primary tablet solution, it would be quite a feather in the company's cap. It could also serve as a model for massive iPad deployments.
Although there have been deployments in education and business that involve tens of thousands of iPads (San Diego's school district and SAP being two excellent examples), they are still orders of magnitude smaller than the Turkish mega-project.
The sheer number of devices involved is mind-boggling on its own, to say nothing of infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the tablets or the complex mobile management needs that would be involved. Given the scale, even the expected four-year time frame for the roll out seems challenging.
So how would Apple's education team accomplish such a huge task?
Breaking things down
One of the first tasks in tackling any major undertaking is to break the goal down into smaller objectives managed by specific teams. In this case, that means thinking locally rather than nationally.
According to Maypalo, the projects will bring iPads or other tablets into 40,000 individual schools. Doing the math, that means that each school would receive an average of 375 iPads.
Those numbers will vary with population density and the type of school -- primary schools have fewer students per school than its secondary schools. The key point, however, is that individual schools are likely to have pretty manageable numbers of iPads. In fact, at the school level, the size of each deployment will likely be similar to deployments in the U.S. and abroad.
Even so, that means 10,000 deployments will be happening simultaneously during each year of the four year time frame. A huge number of teams, each including technicians and educational technologists, will be needed to ensure each school is supported during and after the initial rollout. Turkey will likely need to hire additional full time IT staff at each school to keep everything running smoothly.
It isn't just about the iPads
Those teams of technicians won't just be setting up and handing out iPads to teachers and students. Implementing one-to-one iPad deployments requires serious infrastructure.
As many schools have discovered, Wi-Fi capacity often needs to be boosted significantly to support such programs. The underlying wired network of a school also needs to be expanded, upgraded, and redesigned to support and manage the network load that the iPads will generate. Then there's the need to implement mobile management solutions that secure devices, configure a range of device settings, and deploy apps and other content like electronic textbooks.
That's a lot of work that needs to happen at each school before the iPads even arrive. Having been through several mass education deployments over the years, I know that coordinating the logistics of the specialized teams involved can be a nightmare.
On the other hand, the fact that this is a national effort will provide some advantages. Early pilot projects in a limited number of schools will generate processes and a series of best practices that can then be replicated by wider numbers of schools.
It's also important to remember that handing iPads out to kids is just really a first step in the digital learning process. Turkey will need to ensure teach training is available and that there are adequate channels for teachers to share what works and what doesn't work. The national scope may help -- but probably more for the schools that are last in line to receive the tablets.
Apple's app purchasing and deployment systems are also a big challenge for these kinds of deployments.
Apple's Volume Purchase Plan is far from an ideal way to buy and load apps or other content. The program relies on iTunes redemption codes and ties redeemed apps or content to the Apple ID of the person who redeemed it, meaning that students or employees become the owner of the content and take it with them when they leave a school or a job. While the free Apple Configurator utility can work around this, using it is incredibly labor intensive -- each iOS device must be connected via USB to a Mac - and it isn't a process that could scale well for a few hundred devices let alone 15 million.
Hopefully for other businesses interested in iPads, a deployment of this scale might get Apple to revamp the program to work better for schools and businesses.
Ultimately, Turkey's initiative could set a model for extremely large iPad deployments. Although schools around the world would have the most to gain from watching Turkey's example, there will likely be lessons for large enterprises considering a massive iOS device deployment as well.