Collecting required continuing professional education credits is fast becoming a solitary experience for many CPAs, with sophisticated Web-based learning on the threshold of overtaking traditional live events.

In addition, CPE providers are scrambling to accommodate the rush to mobile devices and the growing appetite for "just-in-time learning," and to harness the power of social media. Yet traditional face-to-face events such as those sponsored by state CPA societies and the American Institute of CPAs are still available in abundance for those who prefer them -- and are not likely to disappear any time soon.

The richness and diversity of learning opportunities - some 1,800 approved vendors are listed in the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy's "National Registry" -- is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the ever-expanding body of knowledge that CPAs need to keep pace with to serve their clientele.

NASBA and the AICPA have just updated their standards for CPE offerings; those pertaining to new self-study programs, independent study and group programs took effect July 1. The new standards, replacing those in place since 2002, "will provide flexibility for innovation in learning techniques and allow for future considerations around outcome-based learning," according to NASBA.

 

NEW LEARNING PATTERNS

Much has changed since 2002. Ken Koskay, vice president of learning solutions for the Tax and Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, estimates that a decade ago about 65 percent of the CPE instruction his company supplied was instructor-led live learning, 20 percent was print-based, and the remaining 15 percent was Web-based. (Web seminars were a mere blip on the screen then.) Today, the breakdown is about 50 percent live events, 25 percent Web seminars, 22 percent online self-study and about 3 percent print-based.

"We do 500 webinars a year," he said, adding that that number has doubled over the past three years.

The AICPA has also seen its webinar offerings jump -- by 76 percent in the last year alone, according to Mike Ramos, the institute's director of professional development.

The rapid rise of webinar-based CPE began after the 2008 financial crisis-induced recession, when frugal CPAs were receptive to a low-cost alternative to paying for airplane tickets and hotel bills to attend out-of-town seminars and conferences.

But even when austerity isn't a motivating factor, the Web seminar format is ideally suited to certain topics, including highly time-sensitive briefings, according to Ramos. "We put on a webcast within two days of the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act," he said. While few CPAs with a general clientele would have taken the time to travel to receive such a briefing, many who wanted to be able to fulfill their role as a "trusted business advisor" to small-business clients did so, Ramos noted. The fact that they could rack up CPE credits for such an educational experience may have been viewed as a bonus by many.

But while the relative simplicity (from a purely logistical perspective) of hosting a Web seminar has contributed to the proliferation of those events, "not all webcasts are created equal," Ramos warned. "There are variations on the effectiveness of learning."

 

THE MARATHON WEBINAR

Ramos pointed to offerings of eight-hour CPE webinars which, he said, have raised eyebrows at state CPA societies. It is reasonable to question how much time a CPA would actually stay tuned in to such an event. "I think some of those concerns are legitimate," he said. The AICPA's own events "tend to be two hours or less."

The new NASBA CPE standards took a step towards addressing that concern, noted Jessica Luttrull, manager of the National Registry of CPE Sponsors. In particular, the seventh standard requires that "group Internet-based programs" use "methodologies that ... guide the participant through the learning process and provide evidence of a participant's satisfactory completion of the program."

The new standards also tightened up requirements for instructor qualifications, eliminated the use of true/false questions for final exams in self-study courses and broadened criteria used to assess the credit hour value of online classes, Luttrull added. (NASBA maintains a robust Web site, www.learningmarket.org, that contains the new standards and other CPE-related content, including new state requirements.)

It is in the Web-based "distance learning" self-study arena, however, that, thanks to increasingly sophisticated applications, the learning experience can be monitored and customized to the needs of each student.

This format also lends itself best to the most complex educational topics, particularly tax issues, according to Mark Heverdejs, director of learning/CPE for CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business. It is easy with self-paced courses to cut broad topics into highly focused learning units, he explained. He contrasted taxation with the treatment of auditing subjects, which often rely on case studies, and therefore are generally better suited to instructor-led sessions.

 

TECHNOLOGICAL SOPHISTICATION

New e-learning systems are increasingly interactive and "more graphically interfaced than just words on a page," noted Martin Schuebel, director of professional development for the Tax and Accounting division of Bloomberg BNA. For example, a new e-learning platform from his company features "intelligent routing" that adjusts content delivered to the user based on ongoing monitoring of the learner's grasp of the material.

If the user incorrectly answers periodic quiz questions, the system delivers relevant review material. The system "anticipates what your problems are and gets you to a resource area," Schuebel said.

CCH, for its part, boasts that its library of 300-plus online self-study courses don't just enable students to master the subject matter, but also provide "hundreds of practice tools and resources" such as checklists, client letters and flow charts "to help your staff apply their newly gained knowledge," according to sales literature.

And it has been two years since Thomson Reuters' Checkpoint Learning unit introduced what Koskay claims is "best-of-breed instructional design," featuring audio and video embedded within text, with case studies, drop-and-drag functionality, and "the use of games" to enhance learning in some courses.

Despite the proliferation of sophisticated and creative online learning resources now available to CPAs, content providers aren't predicting the immediate demise of traditional physical gatherings.

For one thing, generational differences in learning styles and preferences will keep conferences in business. In general, the older the CPA, the greater the proclivity to attend conferences. The biggest customers for e-learning tend to be the 40-and-under set.

Even so, among all generations "the ability to network" at conferences "is important," Koskay said. "That will never go away."

Also, many accountants remain loyal to their local CPA societies. And the opportunity to attend events featuring sought-after speakers will always draw an audience, Koskay said.

 

A BLENDED APPROACH

"Most of our learners are taking a blended approach: a couple of days of live learns, a couple of days of self-paced study" and the remainder webinars, according to Koskay.

Given that smorgasbord approach, Koskay and other service providers have recognized that many CPAs can use assistance keeping track of the CPE hours they have accumulated. In many states, it's not enough for CPAs to accumulate a designated total of credit hours; requirements often exist for specific subject areas. That tracking challenge is magnified for CPAs licensed in multiple states, or holding additional professional credentials that also require ongoing CPE accumulation.

Koskay, for example, a CPA, also holds the Certified Financial Planner designation. Some educational sessions he attended while a practitioner to maintain his CFP credential carried partial weight towards his CPA CPE requirements.

The difficulty of keeping on top of it all has given rise to CPE credit-tracking functionality on some educational content providers' platforms (including Thomson Reuters'). "As a user, you tell us your profile. The platform automatically tracks your compliance, and will automatically alert you when you need additional hours," Koskay explained.

The system also deals with certification of completion requirements. While it automatically tracks CPE hours accumulated through Thomson Reuters courses, users can also input information on other learning activities, such as conference attendance.

Learning management systems today are a far cry from the simple Excel-based systems that CPAs cobbled together in the past, observed Heverdejs. CCH recently upgraded its CPE tracking system with additional reporting capabilities and options, he added.

 

FOCUS ON ETHICS

Perhaps the most typical example of focused CPE requirements is in the area of ethics. "Over the past few years, almost all states have added some new requirements" for ethics education, according to Rebecca Gebhardt, manager of compliance services for NASBA. Some states simply require that CPAs take a fixed number of hours of any kind of ethics learning, but others mandate ethics content geared specifically to the laws and regulations of those states.

This creates new hurdles for content providers, which need to have their state-specific courses approved by state CPA licensing boards. It's a challenge that the content providers seem to be willing to tackle, however.

New York is one state that has recently beefed up its ethics education requirements. Effective this year, CPAs licensed in New York need to accumulate four hours of ethics CPE during their triennial licensing cycle.

But unlike many states, New York allows CPAs to forgo the traditional total 40-hour triennial CPE requirement if they instead devote 24 CPE hours in one content area, such as taxation, according to Walter Primoff, CPA, a practitioner with Altfest Personal Wealth Management in New York City, who has been active in CPE matters with the New York State Society of CPAs and formerly was deputy director of that organization.

Providing the 24-hour option was the outgrowth of a "psychometric" study that the society did several years ago to determine "what was overkill and what was underkill" with learning requirements, Primoff said. The conclusion of that analysis, he explained, was that 24 hours of concentrated learning and 40 hours of general learning come out about the same.

New York CPAs who take the concentrated 24-hour CPE approach must include ethics courses within that focus area. If they instead go the 40-hour route, they can "mix it up," Primoff said.

 

FOCUSED LEARNING

New York's concession to concentrated learning may have been a prelude to today's opportunities for highly focused instruction. NASBA's new standards, for example, allow for the possibility of half-credit (i.e., 30-minute) courses. "This allows us to provide just-in-time training; CPAs can apply the training to their job right away," said Ramos. "The training is going to be that much more effective," he added. The institute has not yet begun to offer any half-credit courses, however.

What sort of subject matter might lend itself to this approach? Preparing physical inventory estimates might be an example, Ramos said. "You might get assigned a week in advance" to conduct a physical inventory estimate as a member of an audit team. A 30-minute refresher course or primer on that focused topic might be just the ticket, he suggested.

As part of the push toward shorter courses, as well as a desire to keep up with broader communications and work pattern trends, the AICPA and others are working toward delivering short-burst educational content on mobile devices.

"We recently had a submission from a CPE provider for a course that would be delivered by an iPhone," reported NASB's Luttrull.

CCH reports that all of its online courses will be viewable on iPads in September.

Content providers are also working on ways to harness the power of social media -- or at least the philosophy behind it -- to add value to their offerings. Developing "communities of learning" that extend the relationship between CPAs and course instructors, and even other CPAs, beyond the limits of a particular course, is a goal for Bloomberg BNA, said Schuebel. In theory, such interaction can be fostered and occur before, during and after a course. However, mechanisms for sharing ideas and details of client issues must ensure that confidentiality is maintained where needed, Schuebel added.

CCH has already taken a step toward this general direction by inviting feedback on course content even before a learning event is presented, to help ensure that all students' learning needs are addressed, Heverdejs said, adding that live online events also always provide Q&A opportunities to maximize interaction.

In the future, it might be possible for CPAs to earn CPE based on learning that stems from interaction both with instructors and fellow students, predicted Koskay.

NASBA, as noted, is trying to allow for such innovation. Its new standards "try to be evergreen," said Luttrull. They will automatically come up for review every three years, she explained, to keep pace with the creativity of content providers and the changing educational needs of public accountants.

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