Online CPE

Although online CPE does not dominate the market; it continues to grow each year.


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Michael Gaines sees online CPE courses as a strong supplement to live classes. "Online CPE lets our staff learn at their own pace, it is convenient, and often offers courses that would otherwise not be available," says Gaines, human resources and administrative partner for the New York-based CPA firm Friedman. The firm, which employs 220, requires all employees to complete 40 hours of CPE each year.

Topics of Interest

When it comes to CPE, most people think of the required courses focusing on accounting, auditing, and tax.

Partner Insights

However, some vendors are steering courses in new directions.

The Greenwood, Colo.-based College for Financial Planning recently released its Certified Financial Planner Certification Education Program, which will be available via an online learning platform.

"The online courses enable companies to offer identical classes to all employees, even if located in different offices, and instructors can share applications and conduct tests online to track student progress," says Holly Skarda, senior director of business development and marketing.

Sessions are recorded, enabling students who miss a class to catch up. This also offers an opportunity for participants to review class work.

There are nine classes running now, while there will be 10 classes in the next session. Each class can accommodate up to 50 students, and additional classes can always be added. Classes are broken into five sections, which include financial planning process and insurance, investment planning, income tax planning, retirement planning and employee benefits, and estate planning. There is a Web-based review of all five sections.

Meanwhile, Franklin, N.C.-based Drake Software has been offering fall CPE seminars for the last seven years, but "we wanted to create a class that would train users on how to use Drake Software as well as how to do their taxes," says Billie Black, the company's director of education.

The fall update school presents tax professionals with industry information. Participants are eligible to earn 11 CPE credits.

Drake has added an evaluation guide and software seminars to enhance its CPE offerings. The Drake Software Evaluation Guide offers tax professionals the opportunity to evaluate Drake's tax preparation software. Interested preparers can get the guide at no charge, along with a free copy of the software.

Also new this year, Drake's sales staff held approximately 200 seminars demonstrating the product. Professionals earned four credit hours each for attending. The seminars are free and Drake had about 12 attendees per seminar.

"There is no preference among staff, but the majority still utilizes live instruction," adds Gaines.

Nonetheless, the firm is offering employees the opportunity to take the required ethics CPE course via SmartPros online services. "We use SmartPros because of the quality and reasonable pricing," says Gaines.

This blended approach to learning is taking hold as the preference among firms. In turn, vendors such as SmartPros, CCH, Positive Systems, and Thomson's PPC CPE Solutions are offering a mixture of media for CPE offerings.

In fact, the motto of Fort Worth, Texas-based PPC is "More choices, more ways, more often." To address the blended learning approach, Thomson Tax and Accounting has recently made several CPE acquisitions and plans to centralize all CPE into one administrative center.

However, at this time it continues to offer CPE through PPC, RIA, Gear Up, Bell Learning, and MicroMash, producing a combination of instructor-led, online, and self-study CPE options. PPC's CPE Solutions includes Gear Up Tax and Accounting Education, which encompasses live seminars, self-study CPE, and personalized Web-site services. There are two Web-site options: Accountant City for licensed accountants and Tax Beacon for tax professionals. These sites are fully maintained and updated and include a monthly newsletter, daily tax tips, and updated articles. Also available are regional seminars and book-based self-study through PPC's Bell Learning. Online CPE is available through MicroMash.

According to chief operating officer H. Bart Rogers, MicroMash has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of e-learning CPE courses. However, he stresses, "Sixty percent of the CPA market is still taking instructor-led CPE offerings. The market is evolving into a blended-learning approach, and it's critical to offer multiple forms of content delivery."

Joe Gornick, executive editor for CCH Tax and Accounting books, journals, and CPE publications, says, "Through customer feedback, we've learned that there is no silver bullet approach on how CPAs want to learn. The multi-mode/media approach still works best. It's important to have different channels, such as text-based, CD-based, and audio-based CPE, which is available because people learn in different ways."

Riverwoods, Ill.-based CCH, which has been offering CPE for 35 years, has expanded its approach in the last five years, because of technology options. CCH's Learning Center provides 140 online courses, which are available for an annual access subscription of $329 per person, per year. The Tools and Resources section of the Learning Center provides practice aids to further assist CPAs in their learning process. Aids include worksheets, client letters, flow charts, and checklists. "Our courses are not just information and content. We want to tell CPAs the rules, changes, and concepts, and teach them how to apply them in a planning or compliance setting. Our goal is to make CPE practical, and not just earning CPE for CPE's sake," adds Gornick.

Although Michael Fredlender, a sole proprietor based in Woodland Hills, Calif., uses a combination of learning approaches for his firm, he finds online learning is the most efficient. "CCH's Learning Center allows me or my staff to pop in and pick up CPE credit at the same time as gaining knowledge regarding hot topics. The Learning Center not only provides a wide variety of subjects, but provides them for a variety of skill sets," says Fredlender. He also likes the all-inclusive subscription pricing, because it ties CPE in with the firm's tax research and compliance.

"We're a local firm and don't have as many resources as national firms. The online courses put my firm's learning on par with the bigger firms," adds Fredlender.

Also, this year CCH introduced access to final exams for CCH print courses through its CCH Testing Center Web site. A PDF file of each print-based course is available on the site, allowing users to print and review courses offline. Then, users are able to submit the final exam online anytime.

Online Advancements

As online CPE users become more sophisticated, vendors are seeing streaming audio/video courses heat up.

In the past, Leander, Texas-based Positive Systems, along with its subsidiary, was only a text provider. However, last year the company tested the water by offering one streaming video/audio course. "We've seen a great response, and will add several more courses in the future. People are attracted to the video courses because they prefer to listen as opposed to reading," says vice president Lynda Denlinger.

The streaming video/audio course offered was a four-hour Texas Ethics course. The text-based course costs $59.95, and the video-based course costs $89.95. When asked if price is an issue concerning streaming video/audio courses, Denlinger stresses, "Some people don't want to pay the extra, but others do. It's a matter of how they learn best."

"Everything is going to audio/video streaming. We have about 70 percent of our audience using this form," says SmartPros president William Grollman.

However, the Hawthorne, New York-based company, which went public this year, is taking the success of streaming audio/video one step further with its custom-course development.

"We are doing custom-course development for major CPA firms, as well as trade associations and corporations," says Grollman. "We use the facilities that produce our own programs, such as broadcast video production, new media production for the Web, and understanding of the subject matter, to the clients' subject matter and produce online courses, normally with streaming video on an interactive basis. We can also host the programs on our servers, and can qualify the programs for CPE credit if we're the sponsor."

Reaching the EA Market

WiseGuides has seen 30 percent of its CPE business come from enrolled agents. That made the Stow, Ohio-based company pursue the market through search engine marketing, as well as marketing to the company's EA exam review students who have passed the test and become enrolled agents.

"All of our tax courses for CPAs are also appropriate for enrolled agents. It made sense for us to enter the market and reach the broadest audience," says Aaron Rosenberg, president.

Some of the most popular tax courses among the enrolled agents cover the 2004 tax acts, the 1040, enrolled agents' ethics, the alternative minimum tax, and Roth IRAs.

WiseGuides also provides a self-study exam preparation course that consists of a book and software. The book covers all four parts of the enrolled agent exam and contains review material, as well as exam question-and-answer explanations from the previous year's exam.

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