by Gail Perry

There's a sea change occurring in the arena of continuing professional education for accountants and that change is a direct result of increased use of the Internet.

The quantity and quality of online CPE offerings is continuing to increase as users get more accustomed to signing on and collecting knowledge online.


Among the most high-profile players in the online CPE scramble is CPA2Biz, the Web portal of the American Institute of CPAs.


With nearly 1,000 hours of AICPA courses available in one- and two-hour blocks, and with a modest price tag of just $95 for a year's access to the entire library ($295 for non-AICPA members), the AICPA has waded into the cyber-future with both feet.


CPA2Biz has unveiled a new learning management system that provides users with a single point of access for all online CPE learning. "We've enhanced the user experience with our new learning management system," explained Melissa Rothchild, director of marketing for CPA2Biz. "We've improved search capabilities and course performance. The user experience is better because of improved navigation.


"Our CPE tracking tool tracks InfoBytes (the AICPA online library) and Learn2 (a new addition of computer application courses for the Microsoft Office suite). There's also a feature that allows users to add outside CPE," said Rothchild.


Because of its affiliation with the AICPA, CPA2Biz has commanded much of the industry's CPE attention in the past year, but, it is just one of several providers of Internet-based training for accountants.


A sampling of leading online CPE vendors includes: Bisk Education, www.cpeasy.com; eMind, www.emind.com; Learn2.com, www.learn2.com; MicroMash, www.micromash.com; Learning Insights, www.learninginsights.com; and SmartPros, Ltd., www.smartpros.com.


SmartPros, the reincarnation of Pro2Net, which closed its cyber-doors last spring, now offers a library of over 1,000 hours of skills-based courses priced at $249 per year for access to the entire library. As with the AICPA library, courses at SmartPros are continually updated.


Another online source for CPE, CPEasy, is operated by Bisk Education, which also offers undergraduate and master's degree programs online in affiliation with several universities.


Users of CPEasy can purchase courses individually for $10 to $16 per credit hour or in a block of 20, 40 or 80 credit hours for a lower per-hour price. A block must be used up within a year, but that year can span two licensing years.


"Most people re-subscribe after they've used up their block of courses," said Hong Nguyen, territory manager for CPEasy. "They take advantage of all the hours they purchase."


Advantages of online CPE


There are numerous advantages to taking courses online.


"Most CPAs are procrastinators. They wait till the last minute" to meet their licensing deadline, explained Nguyen. "The online courses give them the option of taking a course right up to the midnight deadline."


CPA2Biz also reports that their systems are humming into the wee hours late in December, when many state accountancy boards have licensing deadlines. Advantages to online CPE include "24/7 access, access for people in rural areas and courses for people who don't have time during the day. They can take a course at night or at five o'clock in the morning," according to Rothchild.


"The size of the courses is very popular too," said Kirk Drussell, senior director for CPE at CPA2Biz. "They can take an hour here or there on the weekend. People like that a lot."


"Online training has the advantage of allowing a student to learn at their own pace and to have direct access to additional support materials," said Shane Gillespie, vice president of marketing and e-commerce at SmartPros. "You can take the time to thoroughly read a case study or look at a spreadsheet and scratch your head by pausing the video or suspending the course."


"In a live environment, you may have someone at the front of the room who is well educated and someone at the back of the room who is a beginner. [The instructor] always has to coach to the weakest link - online training doesn't have that limitation."


Gillespie emphasized the importance of the testing that accompanies online training. Students of online courses must pass quizzes and tests throughout the training in order to get credit. For companies and organizations that value education, the required testing of online CPE provides satisfaction that employees are actually learning. "Online training provides instant gratification and testing on knowledge components. Most live CPE learning has no testing requirement," said Gillespie.


Another plus of the online learning surge is the ability of online vendors to provide quick response to current needs in training. "We can deliver the hottest topics at the drop of a hat, anywhere, at any time," said Gillespie. "You can get the best of the best and it can be instantaneous and on demand."


While the top trainers can't be at every trade show or CPE seminar, they can make their materials available in an online format and thus they are accessible to everyone.


"People like the instant grading. And they like printing their own certificates," said Nyugen.


An online alternative to the self-study courses are live Web cast presentations. CPA2Biz has received high attendance and good feedback from its Web casts. "If the topic is a hot popular topic, we'll get the people," explained Rothchild, who said recent Web cast presentations included last year's tax act, business valuations and FASB 141.


Despite progress, some people continue to shy away from online training because it's still relatively unknown.


Rothchild is convinced that once people try an online course and see how easy it is, they'll be converted. Many Web sites that provide CPE for accountants offer an opportunity to take a free course. CPE credit is given for the free courses, just as it is for the paid courses. It's a good way to get your feet wet in online training.


Drussell pointed to the cost as a great benefit. "All that course work for that low price - the value to a CPA is incredible!"


Drawbacks of online CPE


It's still not all roses and lollipops in the world of online training. "There are definitely advantages to going to a conference, networking, learning from live instructors who can share their experience," said Rothchild.


"You have to have an upgraded computer," said Nyugen. "You can [take online courses] on a slow computer, but it's going to take longer."


According to Gillespie, another shortcoming of online training is the lack of a live instructor. "Asking questions is very important. Also, someone else in the [live] class may bring up something you hadn't thought of and it takes the course in a different direction." Gillespie also pointed out the advantages of group study in live classroom situations, but added that some online training is designed to accommodate group study. FMN video courseware, which is distributed on the SmartPros site, is designed for group study.


Another issue for those who are considering online CPE is that many states limit the number of hours of CPE that can be comprised of self-study. The do-it-yourself online courses count toward the self-study limitation. Be sure to check requirements with your state accountancy board before embarking on a program of online training.

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