Online CPE: Making the Grade

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As accounting scandals heat up, CPAs are taking more and more Web-based courses.

By Carly Lombardo

For MicroMash user Randy Hultz, online CPE allows individual learning, where employees can set their own pace and are assessed at the end of the session.

Partner Insights

Hultz, a CPA and director of career development at BKD, a top-tier CPA firm, uses a blended learning experience for the 250 employees throughout the firm, which requires online CPE courses as a prerequisite to classroom training.

Hot Topics for CPE

Accounting professionals want to keep up with the myriad changes affecting the industry and look to CPE classes to stay current on issues that are at the top of the news.

Here is a sampling of what vendors are offering to cover hot topics.

Tampa, Fla.-based Bisk Education offers “Accounting Profession Reform: Restoring Confidence in the System” through CPAEasy.com. “We always want to engage our customers and technology lets us do just that. Hot topics right now are SOX, fraud, and financial reporting,” says Mike Bisk, vice president, brand management.

The course provides 12 CPE credits and is available online, or in video, audio, or software formats. It features industry experts who analyze, simplify, and explain the latest developments, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, corporate governance/audit committees, state-based regulation, risk management/loss prevention, pension/profit sharing plans, stock options, and fraud.

Furthermore, Bisk offers Online CPE Reports available through streaming audio technology or on cassette or CD. Users subscribe to five topics through its monthly reports. Offerings include:

  • The Tax Report covers new tax laws, changes, and rulings, plus practical implementation and tax planning strategies.
  • The Financial Planning Report provides wealth-building planning strategies and techniques.
  • The Government Accounting Report shows the impact of new governmental accounting and auditing developments, proper compliance strategies, and implementation techniques.
  • The Accounting and Auditing Report offers the latest FASB, AICPA, and SEC pronouncements, implementation strategies, and how-to professional advice on accounting and auditing issues.
  • The Financial and Management Report gathers perspectives on relevant corporate topics and developments in finance, management, tax, and accounting.
Meanwhile, Englewood, Colo.-based MicroMash’s “Capital Gains and Losses” covers the rules for recognizing capital gains and losses, lowered tax rates for non-corporate taxpayers, and assets and events that produce capital gain and loss. If CPAs preview the course online under Free CPE, they will receive two hours of the 10-hour course free.
Headquartered in Springfield, Mo., BKD provides consulting, tax, assurance, and accounting outsourcing services to individuals, businesses, governmental entities, and not-for-profits. “We require employees to take certain courses to ensure that everyone has a foundation level of learning,” says Hultz. “Then, we can cover the subject in more detail in the classroom. We also require them to take classes through self-study that we don’t want to cover in a group environment.”

However, BKD still conducts classroom training from a central location, and employees still need to travel.

“While the online learning’s final test provides us with reassurance that our employees have mastered the subject matter, it does not have one-on-one instruction and there is no knowledge sharing,” says Hultz. “However, we’ve found the blended learning approach is superior to using just one type of training because it provides the advantages of all types of learning.”

While use of online courses has not reduced the number of trips employees make for training, he continues, “It has reduced the number of nights they’re away from home, the hotel bills, and meal bills.”

Although online CPE continues to grow, the word on the street is that most accountants still prefer live instruction. Their guilty secret—accountants want live classes because they don’t have to take a test at the end, the usual finish to an online course.

However, online providers and their CPA students beg to differ. “E-learning is growing at a rapid pace—in fact, it’s the only growing portion in the market, and we’ve seen an annual growth rate of 10 percent,” says H. Bart Rogers, chief operating officer of Englewood, Colo.-based MicroMash.

“Online hasn’t caught on as fast as predicted because people still like seminars, and they don’t want to take quizzes and tests,” says William Grollman, president of SmartPros. “But, we’ve seen SmartPros’ online programs grow by 60 percent.”

In turn, vendors such as Bisk Education, MicroMash, SmartPros, WiseGuides, and Positive Systems are offering CPE courses in three categories: online, live, and print.

Stow, Ohio-based WiseGuides has found a strategy and stuck with it since 1998—offer customers low-cost CPE in an easy-to-use format with up-to- date and interesting course material.

“We have a hard time getting new clients, but we work hard at maintaining the customers we have. We find many of our customers are supplementing classroom-based courses with online courses, but they’re definitely not pushing away seminars,” says president Aaron Rosenberg.

On average, WiseGuides certifies about 15,000 people per year. Users include people of all ages. Given the tone of current events, perhaps it isn’t surprising that there have been many requests for courses about ethics.

“We conducted a survey and found 20 percent of our users are 55 or older. We have many customers who’ve been with us for 10 years and have grown with us. If customers don’t come back every year, they definitely come back every two years,” says Rosenberg. WiseGuides provides 240 hours of CPE. Courses retail for $12.50 an hour, but bargain pricing plans can reduce the cost to as little as $4.99 an hour.

Leander, Texas-based Positive Systems, along with its PassOnline.com subsidiary, offers more than 150 titles that are available on diskette, CD-ROM, via download, or online over the Internet. Course curricula cover accounting and auditing, taxation, consulting, specialized knowledge, computer software, personal development, management, and state ethics requirements.

“Hot topics today are anything that has to do with scandal, Sarbanes-Oxley, or fraud,” says Lynda Denlinger, co-owner and vice president. However, other PSI non-technical courses, such as “Coaching and Empowerment Skill for Accountants” or “Beyond Words: A Practical Guide to Understanding Nonverbal Communications,” are still good sellers.

CPE Standards

The AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy began a quest three years ago to establish standards for CPE programs.

The new standards, which took effect Jan. 1, 2002, also introduced the concept of independent study learning, allowing a CPA to engage in a program of learning with a qualified sponsor on a one-on-one basis.

According to Yordanos Dumez, CPA and director of compliance service at NASBA, “The standards called for providers of CPE to modify self-study, and we gave them to Jan. 1, 2004, to comply.”

Hattie Bryant, producer of the PBS television show Small Business School and owner of CPE4CPAs, says, “Self-study is causing the industry to be in transition. Most self-study, until last year, was 100 minutes to get an hour of CPE, but it was not interactive. NASBA put in new rules and requires 50 minutes of NASBA-approved interactive self-study for one hour, and many states aren’t buying into the rules. We worked for months to comply with self-study rules to provide interactive feedback on quizzes and the test.”

Some standards for CPE program sponsors that cover self-study are:

  • Standard No. 5. CPE program sponsors of group and self-study programs must ensure learning activities are reviewed by qualified persons other than those who developed them to assure that the program is technically accurate and current and addresses the stated learning objectives.
  • Standard No. 6. CPE program sponsors of independent study learning activities must be qualified in the subject matter.
  • Standard No. 7. Self-study programs must employ learning methodologies that clearly define learning objectives, guide the participant through the learning process, and provide evidence of a participant’s satisfactory completion of the program.
CPE vendors aren’t the only ones that need to follow rules; CPAs must also comply with the standards. CPAs should: (1) participate in learning activities that maintain or improve their professional competence; (2) comply with all applicable CPE standards, rules, and regulations of state licensing bodies, other governmental entities, membership associations, and other professional organizations or bodies; (3) claim the recommended CPE credit only for CPE programs that comply with the standards; and (4) accurately report the appropriate number of CPE credits earned, and maintain documentation of their participation in the learning activities giving rise to those credits.
Although unsure if streaming video/audio is catching on, “this year we will be completing a video course to test the water. In addition, Webcasts seem to be hot, but they’re priced similar to classroom training, and you still need to work you schedule around the Webcast. I don’t believe this will appeal to the self-study person who is looking for price and convenience,” says Denlinger.

Much like PSI, the College for Financial Planning, an Apollo Group subsidiary, offers courses in five areas: insurance, investment, tax, estate planning, and retirement.

The Greenwood Village, Colo.-based company finds its audience to be mostly Certified Financial Planners, who need 40 hours of continuing education.

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