School may be out for the summer, but IT managers in educational institutions from K-12 to universities are busy with maintaining, replacing, or repairing PC equipment to get ready for the fall. Today, computers have become a necessity to keep educational institutions functioning, and everyone from the students to the educators to the administrative staff relies upon them. Colleges and universities have been heavy users of computers for decades, but more recently, K-12 education is keeping pace. Computers have become so prevalent that even small schools or school districts have their own IT departments to manage their PC resources.

The U.S. Department of Education tracks IT usage in public school systems in the U.S., and as of the fall of 2008, 100% of public schools had one or more instructional computers with Internet access. The ratio of students to computer was 3.1:1. Of the computers in public schools, 91 percent were used for instructional purposes. The rest were likely used by administrative staff. Among the students, data from an earlier study in 2003, found that 80% of students already use computers by the time they are in kindergarten, 91% in grades 1 through 5, 95% in grades 6 through 8, and in grades 9-12, 97% use computers. Those numbers are probably even higher today. Students are using computers to complete school assignments, do word processing, email, and of course, play games.

Colleges and universities have been using computers since they were invented; indeed, some universities had a hand in inventing them to begin with. Universities initially used mainframe computers with terminals to meet their administration and research needs. The higher-end research facilities at universities may have even owned a supercomputer. As computer technology evolved, universities then moved to client-server models and internal networks connecting desktop PCs, and now are gradually moving into cloud computing. As long as needs for security and reliability are met, university IT departments can use cloud computing to operate on a “server-less” basis. However, staff, students and faculty will still need desktop PCs to access the applications that operate in the cloud.

Along with using PC technology for administration and research, computers are used for all university operations, instruction, communications, logistics, and planning. Universities would be hard pressed to even exist without computers today.

Funding and budgets are always an issue for educational institutions, and since IT budgets are a mission-critical part of administrative operations, IT managers face challenges on how to provide the best technology they can with smaller budgets. Even though computer hardware prices have decreased over time and with volume discounts, it’s still a big piece of the budget. That usually means repairing instead of replacing computers, and keeping them in service longer.

Will computers ever replace humans for education? To some extent, they already have with the popularity of e-learning via the Internet. With broadband connections widely available and affordable, even complex graphics and presentations can be transmitted and viewed in real time. The other advantage is that web-based learning can be done anywhere, any time. Even though computers speed up mundane tasks and help us visualize or compute data, it still requires human interaction to facilitate effective learning, even if it’s via audio during an Internet session. Computers are here to stay in education, but so are teachers and professors to guide and direct the learning.

What do you think the future will bring for computers in education?