Curt A. Bartlett, a CPA with Ajilon Consulting in Jersey City, N.J., has been using Bisk CPEasy, a division of Bisk Education, for the past three or four years to fulfill his CPE requirements. While he still prefers text-based courses, he acknowledges that online courses do offer certain advantages and that many of his colleagues are putting down the pencil and plugging in for continuing education.
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“I think you could argue that the online [courses] are better, but for me, I like it wrapped up in a hard copy,” says Bartlett, who has used some online offerings. “It seems like everyone is going for online.”
Bartlett turns to Bisk for his CPE because of the ease of use and variety of topics. “All of it is up to date. A lot of their stuff you can apply to the real world,” says Bartlett. “I find it an easy product to keep my CPA [certification] active.”
For Bartlett and other accounting professionals, CPE may be viewed as a necessary evil. Struggling with mounting workloads and slimmer staffs, keeping up with CPE isn’t easy for professionals and they often place it on the back burner. Another challenge professionals may face is keeping up with state CPE requirements, as each state is different.
“Make sure that the provider offers courses approved in the state [you are in],” says Andy Rosenberg, CPA, founder and chief executive officer of Akron, Ohio-based WiseGuides, which markets interactive computer-based CPE. “A lot of CPAs are not too familiar with the regulations in their state.”
For example, some states limit the amount of self-study CPE a professional may take.
While practitioners may not know all the regulations, they surely know that education has moved rapidly to online formats
Fifteen years ago, all WiseGuides courses were distributed on CDs with customers paying only for courses they used. Then in 1999, the company began offering the material online.
“As soon as we got in on the Web we saw it grow rapidly,” says Rosenberg.
Last year, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of its clients were still using CD versions; and this year all customers are using Web-based products.
The company currently offers about 55 courses-all Web-based-mainly in the tax arena. Customers can either purchase individual courses or a package of hours at a discounted rate. If customers do not use purchased hours within a year, they can carry over unused hours as long as they buy additional WiseGuides courses. Purchasers can also share those hours with colleagues in the same firm. Available plans include 20 hours for $149, 40 hours for $249 or 100 hours for $499. Rosenberg says that most of the 7,000 or so customers opt to buy a CPE plan versus individual courses.
Similarly, Valerie Wendt, product manager for Bisk CPEasy, says the company has a number of clients who, like Bartlett, prefer text-based CPE, but within the last five or six years the provider has been expanding its online offerings and those customers seeking the convenience are responding.
Wendt estimates that 50 percent to 70 percent of the customer base opts for online courses.
But that does not mean Bisk CPEasy is turning its back on other delivery methods. The company currently offers more than 300 multimedia CPE programs in a variety of formats, including online, CD-ROM, video, DVD, audio and text.
Providers offering a variety of formats are meeting the needs of professionals who are looking for “blended learning,” a combination of live seminars and self-study formats. Blending is viewed as a way of keeping CPE interesting, while the variety also allows accounting professionals to easily meet mandatory state reporting requirements.
“There are a lot of courses out there that provide the facts but our experts present it in a way so CPAs know how it will affect their practice,” says Wendt.
Bisk also offers additional tools such as its CPE Network, which offers monthly videos that keep a firm’s staff informed about the latest news and developments in tax and accounting via a 90-minute network TV news format, delivered on DVD or streaming video so firm associates can tune in anytime. A full transcript, discussion questions and supplemental material are included.
SmartPros, based in Hawthorne, N.Y., provides education and content publishing and development services in a variety of media including Web, CD-ROM and video. It offers more than 700 CPE titles for accounting and finance professionals, which can be purchased via an annual subscription or on an individual basis.
“The trick is to use technology and distribution to meet the needs of clients,” says Shane Gillispie, vice president of marketing services, eCommerce for SmartPros, who notes that the company’s strongest growth has been in online delivery.
A publicly held company, SmartPros, which publishes about 15 to 20 courses a month, derived $9.3 million in revenue from accounting/finance and related products, up from $8.4 million the prior year. The most recent year’s total represented 61.2 percent of the company’s revenue.
SmartPros has been expanding outside of the accounting and financial area. In 2006 and 2007, it purchased companies providing training to the legal pharmaceutical, banking, insurance and financial services markets, and also WatchIT, which markets technology training.
Among the offerings for the accounting and market is SmartPros Advantage, an annual subscription-based line featuring hundreds of course titles, with one to five credit hours each, of multi-media and text-driven courses for one price. Courses include downloadable course materials, instantly graded exams, and the ability to track credits and print completion certificates. Categories include accounting and auditing, financial planning, consulting, management, computer applications and taxation.
The company also offers FMN Online, a financial update subscription program. FMN produces 48 new courses, four each month, and has more than 72 archived courses. An annual subscription includes “fast track” outlines, transcripts, quizzes and the ability to track credits and print completion certificates.
Big Kid on the Block
The American Institution of CPAs is also seeing its massive CPE business move into the online space, with CPA2Biz, the forprofit subsidiary which markets its courses, doubling its Webcast and audiocast offerings year-over-year.
After the enhancements to the CPA2Biz.com site last year, CPA2Biz has seen improved customer usage and results in the CPE areas of the site.
“We have seen a 75 percent increase in email clickthrough-to-purchase conversion rates for our CPE products during our last quarter, compared to the same quarter of the previous year. The email campaign clickthrough-to-purchase conversion rate measures the percentage of customers who make a purchase on our Web site divided by the number of customers who clicked through each email campaign,” explains Melissa Rothchild, vice president of marketing for CPA2Biz. Rothchild says growth stems from new site features such as a full table of contents, page excerpts, audio/video clips and side-by-side product comparison charts.
More enhancements are currently being made to the AICPA’s CPE online grading system. At this time, 80 percent of all CPE exams for AICPA courses are graded online. These changes, scheduled to go live no later than fall, are meant to improve site’s usability, provide users with a pre-submission “final review” page to scan before submitting their exam answers, and will offer recommendations for related self-study courses.
Despite the move to online courses, states generally require practitioners complete a certain amount of live instruction.
Live events also provide opportunities for networking, notes Randy Johnston, executive vice president of K2 Enterprises, a consulting group that specializes in live CPE.
K2, based in Hammond, La., focuses primarily on computer-related continuing education. Course topics include Excel, budgeting, accounting software, business analytics, internal controls, paperless office technology and computer updates.
K2 Enterprises offers eight-hour and four-hour education sessions to CPA societies and private industry throughout the nation.
This year, the company will produce more than 800 live CPE events.
Johnston says online courses represented about 25 percent of its offerings in 2007. However, he says personal interaction and networking that drives live CPE and keep it viable.
Completing CPE on the computer may be more difficult for some professionals given the distractions of the office or home.
Similarly, the Income Tax School, founded in 1989 by Chuck McCabe, offers both live and online courses. The company, which launched its e-learning line in 2003, had about 1,300 online students last year.
“I think technology is making it more possible for e-learning to more closely emulate the classroom experience,” says McCabe. “You can have a real-time infrastructure, which we will probably make available at some point in the future.”
McCabe adds that e-learning enables The Income Tax School to reach professionals it may not have been able to otherwise reach.
“There are many CPAs who are not experts in tax preparation because they are doing other things like corporate accounting. It is very specialized,” says McCabe.