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Our CPE System: A Square Peg for a Round Hole

by Heather Fitzpatrick, CPA, CGMA, WSCPA Chair for 2014-2015 | Jan 19, 2015
Square peg round hole
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How do you learn something new?

One morning this fall, my husband was explaining DNA to my 11-year-old daughter. “Do you know what it stands for?” he asked. “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” And he gave her a detailed description, in simple terms, of how DNA works.

My husband isn’t a scientist. He’s a business operations guy. In fact, I studied science longer than he did. It was what I intended to major in when I enrolled in college. But I couldn’t remember what DNA stood for. So I asked him why he could remember facts about DNA so well. Was it an exceptionally engaging teacher in a classroom?

“No,” he said. “It was a vacation.”

His family was taking a vacation, and his teacher gave him an unusual make-up assignment. He had to study RNA, which the class was studying while he was gone, and come back prepared to teach the lesson on DNA, which the class would not yet have learned.

Forty years later, what he learned by doing – preparing the lesson himself so he could teach others – had lasted much longer than the lesson on RNA he learned through self-study or the lessons he learned in the traditional classroom setting.

While this is a good example, it’s hardly atypical. Most of what we learn, we learn by doing. Experts say 70% of what we learn is acquired through hands-on, experiential learning. Only 10% is learned in formal classroom environments, and another 20% is learned through informal coaching and training.

So why is it that our continuing professional education (CPE) system, which is meant to measure how well we stay current on technical skills and subjects that affect our performance as a profession, only measures formal classroom learning?

Sure, self-study programs made CPE easier 20 years ago or more. More recent moves toward webcasts and webinars have made access even more convenient. (The WSCPA has long been one of the leading innovators in CPE delivery, by the way.) But these systems still don’t measure the way most people learn best and most thoroughly: in small time increments, with coaching, while they’re doing something on the job.

Fortunately, the WSCPA isn’t the only organization to notice the difference between true learning and CPE measurement. NASBA (the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy, the organization that sets the standards for what type of CPE is acceptable in most states), and the AICPA have both been working on the issue. In fact, the AICPA has launched a new site with an overview of what their research has revealed. You can check it out at http://futureoflearning.aicpa.org.

So what does the future of learning look like for CPAs?

I think it’s too early to know for sure, but the educational models that the AICPA, NASBA, and other organizations, including the WSCPA, are discussing are likely to be:

  • Competency-based: In the future, CPE is more likely to be focused on measuring what matters – competency – rather than inaccurate proxies such as hours of classroom instruction. This will require a new evaluation system that measures CPA success in mastering materials.
  • Technology-enabled: Technology will continue to play an increasingly important role in content delivery. Whether connecting discussion groups across broad geographies, serving as a repository for information, or providing game-based learning environments, technology is likely to facilitate the future of learning.

  • Linked to career progression: Throughout the arc of a CPA’s career, the competencies required for success shift from technical expertise to management experience. In the future, learning is likely to focus more closely on ensuring CPAs have the right skills at the right time, including not only technical skills, but also competencies related to people, leadership and business acumen.

  • Customized, modular and integrated: CPE programs of the future offered by organizations like the WSCPA are less likely to be structured around a curriculum, and more focused on customizing the approach to the needs of the CPA learner. We are likely to see a blend of learning styles, combining live classroom instruction, discussion and pre-work so that the class focuses on applying the learning, not memorizing facts. Case studies, simulation and scenario-based learning will also become more common.
  • Timely, including just-in-time and on-demand learning:  The more integrated focus will encourage the development of the type of learning required in a practical setting: accessible by CPAs wherever they are, whenever they need it, in short increments. CPE could be delivered in increments as short as 10-minutes long on topics of immediate relevance to the practitioner.

  • Reflective of the way people actually learn, including formal, classroom learning, informal coaching and training, and hands-on experiential learning: While there are challenges ahead, there is broad recognition that the current CPE system does not achieve the objectives of either the profession or the regulatory bodies that govern us. The future of learning is more likely to reflect the ways professionals develop lasting knowledge by focusing on helping them develop a deeper understanding of, and ability to apply, subject matters that are directly relevant to their career.

Clearly, this approach will demand innovative thinking. However, this more customized, flexible approach isn’t entirely fantasy. Several organizations in other countries, including CIMA and the CAs of England and Wales, currently use competency-based systems which address personal needs, have no set hours or unit requirements, and include formal, informal and experiential learning as part of the continuing professional education structure. There may be opportunities to learn from these programs as well as from other continuing education programs outside the CPA profession.

With continued innovation and collaboration between State Societies, the AICPA, and the State Boards of Accountancy, CPE of the future could be a much better fit to CPAs’ needs: a round peg for a round hole.

Heather Fitzpatrick is President & CEO of MarketFitz and WSCPA Chair for 2014-2015. You can contact her at hfitzpatrick@marketfitz.com.

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