Computer vs. Paper Tasks

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Ergonomics Vol. 51, No. 9, September 2008, 1352–1375

Computer- vs. paper-based tasks: Are they equivalent?
Jan M. Noyesa* and Kate J. Garlandb
a

University of Bristol, Department of Experimental Psychology, 12A Priory Road, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK; bUniversity of Leicester, School of Psychology, Henry Wellcome Building, Lancaster Road, Leicester LE1 9HN, UK

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In 1992, Dillon published his critical review of the empirical literature on reading from paper vs. screen. However, the debate concerning the equivalence of computer- and paper-based tasks continues, especially with the growing interest in online assessment. The current paper reviews the literature over the last 15 years and contrasts the results of these more recent studies with Dillon’s findings. It is concluded that total equivalence is not possible to achieve, although developments in computer technology, more sophisticated comparative measures and more positive user attitudes have resulted in a continuing move towards achieving this goal. Many paper-based tasks used for assessment or evaluation have been transferred directly onto computers with little regard for any implications. This paper considers equivalence issues between the media by reviewing performance measures. While equivalence seems impossible, the importance of any differences appears specific to the task and required outcomes. Keywords: computer vs. paper; NASA-TLX workload measure; online assessment; performance indices

1. Introduction The use of computer in comparison to paper continues to attract research interest. This is not necessarily in terms of which medium will dominate, although there are still publications on the ‘myth of the paperless office’ (see Sellen and Harper 2002), but rather on the extent of their equivalence. Testing, for example, is central to the disciplines of Applied Psychology and Education and, in situations requiring assessment, online administration is increasingly being used (Hargreaves et al. 2004). It is therefore important to know if computer-based tasks are equivalent to paper-based ones and what factors influence the use of these two media. The aims of the present paper are twofold: (1) to provide a critical review of the more recent literature in this area; (2) to draw some conclusions with regard to the equivalence of computer- and paper-based tasks. 2. Early studies

Experimental comparisons of computer- and paper-based tasks have a long history dating back some decades. Dillon (1992) in his seminal text, ‘Reading from paper versus

*Corresponding author. Email: j.noyes@bristol.ac.uk
ISSN 0014-0139 print/ISSN 1366-5847 online Ó 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/00140130802170387 http://www.informaworld.com

Ergonomics

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screens: A critical review of the empirical literature’, provided a detailed and comprehensive comparative review. A summary of Dillon’s and other earlier findings will be given, although it is not the intention to replicate this review here. It is evident that earlier comparisons focused on traditional outcome measures, for example, reading speed, accuracy and comprehension. A list of pre-1992 studies is given in Table 1; these are now briefly reviewed in terms of outcome measures. 2.1. Reading speed

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In a review of research findings, Dillon (1994) suggested that reading was some 20 to 30% slower (in terms of proof-reading performance) from a computer screen than from paper. Many studies supported this conclusion (e.g. Wright and Lickorish 1983, Gould and Grischkowsky 1984, Belmore 1985, Gould et al. 1987a,b, Wilkinson and Robinshaw 1987). However, some studies found minimal differences (Kak 1981, Switchenko 1984), while Askwall (1985), Creed et al. (1987), Cushman (1986), Keenan (1984), Muter and Maurutto (1991) and Oborne and Holton (1988) reported no significant difference...
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