A Comparison Study of the Learning Effectiveness of
Computer Aided Instruction vs. Classroom Lecture
by Rick Mills

1. Introduction

Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI) has existed for over four decades, but it was not widely used until the advent of the personal computer. CAI started making inroads in the workplace when networked personal computers started becoming widespread in the late 1980s (Kearsley, 1990). CAI as an alternative to the traditional classroom training has been implemented by large businesses with robust training budgets, yet there remains a need for small to medium size employers to find an efficient method for delivering effective, reasonably priced training to their employees (Bergman & Kaufmann, 1995). Bergman found CAI may be able to fill this need. CAI could benefit the workers by opening up a greater number of training topics required for job advancement and provide new skills in using technology in the learning process.

This study sought to determine the comparative effectiveness between the traditional classroom lecture method and the CAI method in such a medium sized company, namely, NESLAB Instruments. NESLAB Instruments is a 500 employee New Hampshire manufacturer of laboratory and medical instrumentation. They agreed to host the study and provide learners, resources, and materials.

This company's employee training was traditionally provided in one-hour classroom lecture format. Typical topics included electrical theory, refrigeration, fluid dynamics, tool specific training, and safety procedures. Some training was required by state or federal regulation. Each topic was generally repeated on a quarterly schedule. This training system, while methodical, had several disadvantages: (a) learners had different knowledge levels, and classroom lecture tended to be geared at the average knowledge level; (b) 11 week intervals between classes resulted in training delays for new hires; (c) the classes had little portability for delivery to field personnel; (d) training time was at the expense of production time; and (e) costs were incurred when instructors conducted repetitive classes.

CAI has the potential to address each of the above concerns: (a) differing knowledge levels are addressed by self pacing - a Training & Development case study ("Training Industry Trends," 1997) showed use of computer presentation could result in time savings of up to 80% over classroom instructor-led training. This is due to tighter design and the learner's ability to bypass material already mastered; (b) intervals between classes are addressed by computer courses which could be available independently of instructor schedule. This is an advantage documented in a study of computer presentation at a Chrysler subsidiary (Wilkinson, 1998); (c) portability is addressed by computer presentation courses which may be copied to disk or delivered online; (d) the impact on production time is addressed by the ability for course delivery to take place independent of production time.

For the purpose of this study, two formats of a training curriculum were created: one for classroom lecture, one for CAI presentation. The formats were made as similar in content as possible. The classroom format required three one-hour sessions. The time required for the CAI format varied by individual. The study was introduced to the learners. Those who consented to participate in the study completed a consent form (Appendix A) and became subjects of the study. Subjects were randomly assigned to each curriculum format. A test (Appendix B) was used as a pretest to measure prior knowledge, and as a posttest to measure knowledge after course completion. The pretest and posttest scores were then compared to determine change of knowledge level as a result of each curriculum format. A survey tool (Appendix C) was used to measure satisfaction, and a journal was used to measure time expended in development, preparation, and presentation of the curriculum; from which cost figures were derived.

Problem statement

NESLAB Instruments seeks to compare computer presentation of training curriculum to traditional classroom lecture in order to keep the company's training program effective for its employees and contribute to the competitive advantage of the company.


NESLAB instructors: The instructors at NESLAB Instruments, Inc., of Newington, NH. Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI): A method of independent learning using a personal computer to present material and guide the learner through a lesson, allowing freedom of navigation choice, and providing the ability to bypass material already mastered.

Research Questions

I. Do adult learners using computer presentation acquire knowledge as effectively as learners receiving the same curriculum in a traditional classroom lecture format?

II. Do adult learners using computer presentation achieve satisfaction with the delivery method as much as learners attending a classroom lecture?

III. How does the cost of computer presentation delivery compare to classroom lecture in terms of learner and instructor time?

IV. How does the cost of computer presentation delivery compare to classroom lecture in terms of curriculum development and delivery?

Objective and Outcomes

The objective was to compare the learning effects of two groups of learners studying the same curriculum. One group used traditional classroom lecture, the other used CAI format instruction. The outcome was the ability to determine the relative feasibility of the two methods by comparing (a) learner knowledge gained; (b) learner satisfaction with delivery method; (c) cost, in terms of learner time; and (d) cost, in terms of development and delivery.


CAI has the potential to improve learning and satisfaction, according to a study which showed CAI yielded consistent adult employee learning and high knowledge retention (Chase, 1997). Learner satisfaction may be enhanced when employees who have prior knowledge of a topic could use CAI to bypass already mastered material, and acquire knowledge on a schedule of their own choosing. NESLAB, and other similar companies, would benefit by having learners use their training time more efficiently.

CAI may be found to deliver instruction more economically than classroom lecture, which would provide cost savings to the company. This could result in the ability to provide training materials on more diverse topics for the same cost. NESLAB would benefit by using the computer presentation developed for this study for future training, and serve as a template for additional topics. CAI may be implemented in a manner accessible to NESLAB field personnel. These field persons do not have convenient access to classroom lecture, but would be able to use such materials if provided on disk or online.

The company has education benefits available to employees, but these are generally limited to work related topics. The computer presentation system could be made available for other topics of employee interest during times when the system is otherwise idle. Topics may address personal, environmental, and social issues. For example, it may be used to deliver information on managing benefits such as retirement plans, proper handling of chemicals for environmental protection, or parenting issues. NESLAB's parent corporation publishes a newsletter to share new innovations, which could be used to distribute results of this study for possible application at other subsidiaries.


It was assumed NESLAB employees could acquire knowledge using CAI. This assumption is supported by a joint US Navy and University of Illinois review of almost 200 studies, which concluded that computer presentation teaches content to adult learners as well or better than a classroom lecture environment (Knirk & Montague, 1992, p. 30).

It was assumed NESLAB learners would be satisfied with the method of acquiring knowledge using computer presentation. However, it has been documented that computer training can be intimidating to some learners (Chase, 1997). This is a particular concern with learners who are not computer literate. It was assumed that some learners in the computer presentation group would need individual assistance to begin using the materials. This was provided when needed and documented in the instructor's time log.

It was assumed the cost of computer presentation development and delivery would be competitive with traditional classroom lecture. Chase (1997) found that the high initial development cost may quickly be offset by the economies of frequent use. However, Bergman (1997) found that computer presentation is only cost-effective when used with a large number of individuals.


This study did not examine alternatives such as internet or distance learning. A 1997 survey by the American Society for Training and Development showed computer presentation the best choice of current technologies at that time for industrial training ("Learning Technologies," 1997). The survey showed increasing trends in the implementation of computer presentation, with the number of training hours projected to increase from 10 to 35% from 1998 to 2000, with a corresponding decrease in traditional classroom lecture from 80 to 55% (American Society for Training and Development, 1997). [see errata]

Computer use was limited to the presentation of curriculum only. While computer-aided testing is commercially available, it was not used in this study. Identical paper multiple-choice tests were used with both groups.

The curriculum topic was limited to electrical theory.

The subjects of the study were limited to adult factory workers. These included men and women, ages 18 through retirement, of different ethnic backgrounds. Some learners use English as a second language. The curriculum was provided in English.


This study took place at one company (NESLAB Instruments, Inc.) in one location (Newington, NH) between October 1999 and April 2000. Chapter 2 describes the professional literature found which describes the various learning technologies available, describes the effects of CAI on learner knowledge, learner satisfaction, and cost; and resources available for the development of a CAI curriculum. Chapter 3 describes the methodology used to prepare, verify, and present the curriculum, select the learners, and use assessment tools to measure learning, satisfaction, and cost. Chapter 4 summarizes the statistical results obtained from the assessment tools, discusses the findings of the research, and seeks to answer the research questions. The Appendices contain the consent form, the satisfaction survey form, test research instrument, and statistical data from the assessment tools.

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