The New CPE: Education as Competitive Advantage

Got 10 minutes? There’s something you need to learn about.

This past January, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy and the American Institute of CPAs re-issued their exposure draft on proposed revisions to their jointly published Statement on Standards for Continuing Professional Education Programs, which looks to provide a “framework for the development, presentation, measurement and reporting” of future CPE programs.

The two organizations are seeking public comment on the matter until April 30, with two areas of CPE receiving a considerable amount of attention: the concepts of blended and “nano-learning” CPE courses — namely, allowing concise, 10-minute increments of learning that count as a fraction of credit. Instead of being focused on a classroom at a set time, nano-learning utilizes online, on-the-fly learning when a professional needs it.

As we entered the New Year, only the state societies of Ohio and Maryland were accepting nano-learning courses for CPE credit. However, other state societies are slowly but surely gravitating toward the field, recognizing the flexibility that nano-learning brings in today’s tech-savvy world. As this new learning method has had time to take shape and gather opinions, we reached out to a number of societies to see how flexible CPE is developing.



For those who have embraced the 10-minute increments of nano-learning in CPE, the most cited positive is that it’s a more pragmatic solution for today’s rapidly evolving work environment.

“The positives are that [nano-learning] is just-when-you-need-it learning and leverages the learner’s time and attention to make the learning more effective,” said Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute. “Rather than sit in a classroom or one-on-one with an instructor, people can learn in real-time. It allows for more focus and repetition, and people can learn new concepts or refresh previous learning at the moment of need.”

“One of the greatest benefits we’ve realized by introducing microlearning is heightened conversations about the future direction that professional learning needs to take,” added Josh Goldman, vice president of learning at the Ohio Society of CPAs. “We’ve engaged in discussions with members, other state CPA societies, the Accountancy Board of Ohio and national bodies such as NASBA and the AICPA, [and] the good news is there is a lot of consensus that CPA learning models should change. It should be developed to reflect recent research in adult learning best practices and better respond to the learning needs of today’s professional.”

And while many state societies don’t offer full-on nano-learning yet, the idea of more accessible learning is still being explored.

“While [our] course design [doesn’t] expressly include ‘nano-learning,’ there are short segments in each of the courses offered,” said Indiana CPA Society president and CEO Gary Bolinger. “We believe that on-demand competency-based learning is very important, in that people only learn when they are in the mindset to do so. In today’s increasingly complex and specialized environment, CPAs need flexibility to enhance competence with a wide variety of learning methodologies. This is especially important for industry members, who may be more responsible for coordinating their own learning, and don’t have the flexibility to leave the office for eight hours at a time.”

Additionally, the chief learning director of the Illinois CPA Society, Ralph Gaillard, noted a desire for a shift in learning methods, saying that the society is looking to put “the learner first” in its education strategy: “We’ve turned the concept of the traditional webcast on its head by offering ‘CPE Newscasts,’ featuring an anchor interviewing the subject matter expert, which allows the new information to be delivered in a conversation as opposed to a 60-minute video lecture by that same subject matter expert,” he says. “With our ‘On Demand’ courses, again, we’ve eliminated the 60- or 90-minute video lecture and replaced it with a series of two- to three-minute video clips. In between the video clips, the online learner [has] various interactive exercises. Research into how adults learn indicates that a learner has a better chance of retaining new information if they are involved in the learning process.”



As nano-learning has had time to incubate, what type of feedback have the participating state societies received? What about the feedback from the students’ superiors?

Josh Goldman of the Ohio Society of CPAs has found that initial responses to the state’s nano-learning policies have been “overwhelmingly positive,” noting that their “FASB update series is a good example of how microlearning can be used to provide a quick, 10-minute overview when changes occur.” With firms, Goldman noted that “conversations with leading firms have been optimistic. CPAs and financial leaders have told us they see the benefit of short, focused learning activities, and like the opportunity to explore a topic to see if they need a deeper dive.”

“Several firms have gone all-in on our Anticipatory Organization system and several partners or CFOs have said they originally thought the three-minute videos would appeal to their Millennials,” added Maryland’s Tom Hood. “They were pleasantly surprised that they found this format to be more effective than traditional learning, both for themselves and the older generations as well. That is consistent with the latest learning research. They like the convenience of mobile learning and the time-saving formats. They also like the fact that they can start a lesson on a tablet and then resume it on a laptop at home or on their PC at work. The learning can follow them wherever they are.”

INCPAS’ Bolinger noted that a participant in a recent learning survey that the society conducted echoed this need for convenience in learning, with the student writing, “I like to learn at my own pace. When doing online learning, I am required to focus and learn. In a class setting, it is easier to just be physically present and not get much out of the class.”



The central issue behind the evolution of CPE seems to be how flexible the profession will allow it to be. Current managers and firm leaders have to ask themselves in 2016 what they think works best with their future workforce, and gauge how that workforce wants to learn. If not, continuing education in the profession might stagnate.

“We believe that learning in the CPA profession is the single greatest source of competitive advantage for individuals and organizations,” said Hood. “In a period of rapid change and increasing complexity, the winners will be those who can keep their rate of learning greater than the rate of change and greater than the competition.”

“Measuring learning in hours or segments of hours doesn’t address the fundamental question of competency development,” said Bolinger. “We believe the profession and those who regulate it (and have responsibility to protect the public) will recognize that the decades-old system of CPE hours is simply not adequate. As a result, we hope that the ‘players’ in the business of professional development will collaborate to develop a contemporary system of competency development that best serves the profession and its stakeholders.”

“We will continue to innovate and drive best practices in adult learning and continuing education for the profession,” added Goldman. “We want to spark more discussions in support of learning models that are relevant for today’s business realities. Formal continuing education models have not changed much in the past 20 years. We need solutions that equip CPAs to perform at a higher level.”

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