James Simpson, CPA and owner of Indianapolis-based Financial Technologies & Management, remembers all too well the continuing professional education classes of recent years.

"We used to sit through the whole eight hours like a sponge, seeing how much you could take in; there were some really bad ones," said Simpson, who now approaches CPE from the perspective of a student and as an instructor at the Indiana CPA Society. "Today, people are expecting more. They expect to get something out of the class. It makes the instructor more excited and engaged, and keeps the class involved."

Continuing professional education has evolved beyond mandatory time away from clients, to cutting-edge, mandatory time spent honing skills and staying abreast of a constant stream of new rules. In fact, the phrase "continuing education" has rarely been more appropriate than in today's climate of legislative minefields.

Annual update courses in government, taxation, and accounting and auditing are, of course, a must for every working accountant. But that's just the beginning. "Fraud and ethics, for obvious reasons, are extremely hot; forensic accounting and internal fraud are particularly hot," said Paden Neeley, vice president of professional development at the American Institute of CPAs.

"[The CPE] is everything about Sarbanes-Oxley and how to implement it and the ramifications of that," added Tracy Minnis, director of professional development for the Indiana CPA Society.

Ken Koskay, vice president of CPE at Fort Worth, Texas-based PPC, a Thomson business, agreed. "Practitioners are struggling mightily to understand what SOX is all about. It's analogous to the Oklahoma land rush, where all the providers are rushing there to fill a need."

"For the last year or so, Section 404 of SOX has certainly been the hottest single topic, along with the auditor's responsibility for detection of fraud," said John Hudson, president of Hudson Consulting Group LLC, and Webcast supplier to the AICPA.

Web casts - with full-motion video, integrated audio and PowerPoint slides, and interactivity with participants - appear to be the newest kid on the block in terms of CPE delivery. Hudson puts on about 30 programs a year. Each program is two hours long, and he estimated that as many as 15,000 participants have viewed a single Webcast.

"Our theoretical limit is around 6,000 simultaneous video streams, and our research shows three to 10 people watching each stream," said Hudson. "The feedback we get from our members who view our programs is that they really like the convenience of not having to get in their car and go somewhere, not just from an expense point of view, but from a time-saving point of view. They really like getting their CPE from their desktops."

Hudson sees his Webcasts as being not so much an alternative as a supplement to live classes. "I see them being very complementary to each other," he said. "I don't think you're ever going to replace conferences - there's a lot to be said for networking and the face to face."

Koskay confirmed that the trend toward online training is increasing. "There are more CPE hours going to online - it represents a larger percent of the total."

But he warns, "There are certain [types of CPE] that you just cannot do through an online medium. When it involves interactive learning or Q&A, clearly that requires a classroom. And hands-on training, such as if you were teaching someone how to prepare a tax return, is not effective online."

And lengthy courses don't always lend themselves to online training. "There are very few people who are willing to spend 40 hours a year in front of a computer terminal getting their CPE," said Koskay.

Tell that to Amy Stanar, associate director of the Center for Professional Development at the University of Phoenix, one of the largest providers of online education. The University of Phoenix's online campus started in 1989, and today boasts a population of 227,000 students from around the world.

The university's Center for Professional Development opened in March 2003 and offers non-degree programs, including CPA review classes. So far, the University of Phoenix is sticking to its tried-and-true format of offering classes in five-week sessions, completely doable in evenings and weekends. But the school is not resting on its laurels. "The CPE market is definitely something we want to explore," said Staner. "We've been around for about one and one-half years, and I feel we've only scratched the surface." In addition to the CPA exam preparation courses, "We also get accountants who are taking additional requirements to satisfy their CPE requirements," Staner said.

Staner feels that the University of Phoenix programs offer a unique experience: "The ability to interact with other colleagues from all over the country is unique to our program. And all of our faculty are practitioners. They might be taking an advanced corporate income tax class from the person in charge of income tax for some large organization like Hewlett-Packard. They'll get a lot of real-world examples."

The University of Phoenix, with 158 brick-and-mortar campuses around North America, is pioneering another form of delivery - blended education. Its FlexNet program allows students to combine classroom and online training.

PPC's Koskay believes blended learning is a significant trend for future training, and Thomson PPC is piloting some programs in that area. "You'll do maybe the first two to four hours of training online, so you have an opportunity to go in and get an overview of the subject, then go into a classroom where you have live instructors who share war stories, and there's Q&A. Then on the back end of that you can blend in a textbook, and maybe go back online and take some second-level courses," speculated Koskay.

But a new approach to learning has a learning curve of its own. A switch to something like blended learning won't happen overnight - especially in a profession that is not known for making swift changes. "If you were to ask 100 people how many are interested in a blended learning solution, 99 would shrug their shoulders. But if I stood in front of the class and explained what blended learning is, many would raise their hands," said Koskay.

Not everyone agrees that online CPE is the answer.

"I think it's a great approach for the delivery of CPE, except because I always have tremendous time constraints, all I do is the minimum possible to answer the questions," said Jim Morris, a partner at BKD.

"I like going to the live classes as opposed to the self-help or the online CPE because I don't have the discipline to do those classes," agreed Simpson.

"We're trying to move a little more to online education, but we're finding that it's not taking off yet," said the Indiana Society's Minnis. "You hear all the reports and articles that say it's now, but when we survey our members, we don't get that same response."

"I think they still want to be in the classroom and answer questions and network. They sit in front of the computer screen for eight hours a day at work - it's a nice, refreshing change of pace to get away from the office," said Minnis.

For many, however, taking online courses is becoming a standard way of fulfilling annual CPE requirements. "The convenience and the timing just makes it very friendly for the participant," said the AICPA's Neeley. "A lot of the members say they really like it - especially at the end of the year."

The AICPA offers much of its online training in one-to-two-hour modules called InfoBytes. With over 700 courses, there's more than enough from which to choose when cramming in last-minute CPE in order to meet a licensing deadline.

MicroMash, Bisk CPEasy, and SmartPros are other leading providers of online CPE.

In order to ensure compliance and attentiveness, most online CPE providers require some type of test or interactive participation in their classes. The providers pride themselves on being able to deliver the latest in important topics almost instantaneously. For professionals who need a quick training experience in the latest legislation, there's no substitute for online classes on demand.

There are many factors that contribute to how CPE is chosen, and the format of the class is not at the top of the list. All of those questioned agree that the course content and the quality of the instructor are paramount to a successful class, and it would appear that those are far more important that other factors, including location, price, format or medium.

For online education to take its place at the forefront of CPE training alternatives, the quality may even need to surpass that of the classroom setting. The value of training is still judged by what students walk away with, not how quickly they can get hold of the material.

"I want to walk away from a course with two or three thoughts or ideas that I didn't walk in with," said BKD's Morris. "Ideas that I can act on that will help my clients or my practice."

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