Robert A. Seay, CPA, DBA, is professor of accounting at Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky. His e-mail address is email@example.com . Holly R. Rudolph, CPA, DBA, is assistant professor of accounting at Murray State. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Someone is offering a CPE course in Wyoming ranch country. And in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. And in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. Traditional courses in unusual places? No. Welcome to online CPE; with a laptop and a phone jack, anyone can earn CPE credits at little cost, when and where it's convenient.
For increasingly busy CPAs, the Internet may become the preferred method for continuing education in the next few years. Learn about the advantages and drawbacks of CPE via the Internet and where to find vendors of this fledgling delivery system.
WHY SELECT ONLINE CPE?
Online CPE benefits not only CPAs but their firms and companies as well. First, it's generally less expensive than other options, such as seminars. Online connection charges are lower than travel costs, especially for CPAs in rural areas who may have to travel far to a course. Travel is also time-consuming; hours spent driving to and from classrooms can be put to much better use. And because anyone anywhere can access online CPE, in the near future vendors may be encouraged to offer training in specialized areas not covered by traditional methods:
Online vendors don't have to worry about filling a classroom at a particular time and place to educate CPAs in useful but relatively narrow areas; the classroom stretches across the world and is open 24 hours a day.
Some online CPE vendors currently offer immediate feedback with online testing and grading; in the future, CPAs at the vendor will evaluate and provide feedback on participant performance in real time, rapidly confirming topics learned and suggesting areas needing further study. Internet-based CPE offers CPAs the potential to receive immediate validation of CPE credit with online certificates of completion and to maintain an online record of credits earned.
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
While online CPE has numerous advantages, its drawbacks are worth noting. First, this approach to CPE is in its infancy. Providers have numerous bugs to work through and the number of conventionally delivered courses far exceeds what's available online. To be major players in the CPE market, vendors will need to increase their offerings and be sensitive to the training needs of their customers.
To take full advantage of online CPE, CPAs must have modems on desktops at home and at the office, and on laptops if they travel. Equipment failures, network problems, phone-line difficulties and provider maintenance can make online education frustrating. And as in all e-commerce transactions, security remains a problem. Vendors not only have to create secure payment systems but they also need to ensure the confidentiality of participant profiles. Individuals may be unwilling to take online courses if vendors can't protect their sensitive personal information.
Another disadvantage of online CPE is the lack of personal interaction with other participants and with an instructor. Some vendors try to overcome this limitation by offering e-mail assistance. Although this is a step in the right direction, immediate online assistance is preferable.
This exhibit describes seven online CPE vendors that either already offer a full range of online courses or are poised to do so in the near future. (This article was complete at Journal press time, but new vendors are entering this niche all the time and established vendors are continually adding new courses; online CPE is evolving at a very rapid pace.) The exhibit, which provides information on 10 key features for online CPE, shows the number of online courses per vendor ranges from 1 to 17 and the average cost per hour varies from $3.50 to $16.05. All providers have online course catalogs, online testing and NASBA approval or probationary approval as start-up sponsors. Six vendors offer online course materials and five have online registration and payment procedures. Four providers have online grading and two offer at least one complimentary course. Only one vendor maintains an online record of CPE credits earned and one issues CPE certificates online.
CPEasy offers 17 courses, 15 of which directly relate to accounting, auditing and tax topics. The average cost per hour is $13.50, and 9 of the 10 features outlined in the exhibit are available. Even though the cost of CPEasy is the second highest of all the providers, it's relatively inexpensive in comparison with traditional CPE courses.
CPEasy is the only provider that offers an online record of CPE. Accounting professionals have immediate access to a database of courses taken and credits earned through CPEasy. This is particularly helpful for CPAs when they need evidence of CPE to renew professional certifications. Additional features of CPEasy include the option to earn free credit that is available through demonstration courses and the ability to earn CPE hours by reviewing a monthly news report and taking short online quizzes. Participants also can work with multiple courses simultaneously, starting new courses before finishing others. They can review completed courses at any time to refresh their memories.
CPEasy has relatively few shortcomings. As with all these online vendors, instructors do not provide feedback online while participants are taking the courses. Also, CPE certificates are not issued online but are sent through the U.S. mail system a few days after participants complete the courses.
CPE Internet also offers 17 courses, and 8 of the 10 selected features are available. However, only 9 courses directly relate to accounting, auditing and tax. The average cost of $16.05 per hour is the highest of all the vendors but this still is a very affordable option. Like CPEasy, CPE Internet offers a complimentary online course and is NASBA approved. Participants also can repeat exams for $35 if they fail the first time. This vendor could improve itself by offering an online record of CPE and issuing certificates online.
Insight CPE offers 6 courses, 3 of which relate directly to accounting, auditing and tax topics. The cost of $7.50 per hour places this alternative in the middle of the pack. Insight CPE's strengths include the availability of online course materials and online testing. A participant can take a remedial quiz by mail within one year of initially taking a course. Unfortunately, Insight offers only 4 of the 10 selected features. The addition of online registration, payment and grading would significantly improve this product. An online record of CPE and online issuance of certificates also would be attractive additions.
The Institute for Continuing Professional Education (ICPE), which began operating in 1997, currently offers only a single course each in accounting and auditing and in taxation. Even though ICPE is a new company, it provides 8 out of the 10 features. The cost per hour of $3.50 is the lowest in the industry, and ICPE is the only provider that issues certificates of completion online. Candidates also can repeat failed exams at no additional charge. ICPE's primary weakness is the limited number of courses available.
|Journal CPE Online
Journal CPE differs from other vendors because CPE credit is available only by completing quizzes based on quarterly issues of the Government Accountants Journal. Exams worth three hours of credit are posted on the Internet quarterly each March, June, September and December after the most recent quarterly issue has been published. The annual cost for 12 hours of CPE is $109 ($9.08 per hour) for members of the Association of Government Accountants. Nonmembers must pay $169 per year, which includes a subscription to the journal.
The benefits of Journal CPE include online registration, payment, tests and grading. NASBA recently approved this program. Its principal shortcoming is that only 12 hours of credit are available each year.
Best CPE offers only tax courses online. Twenty-four hours of tax instruction are available at an average cost of $3.67 per hour. The site provides links to pertinent IRS publications, which serve as the text material. Best CPE offers online testing for these NASBA approved courses. However, the limited number of courses and the absence of key features such as online registration, payment and grading weaken the company's offerings.
McGraw-Hill CPE Online offers an eight-hour course in information technology topics for $39.95a very affordable option. As no accounting, auditing or tax courses are available, McGraw-Hill clearly needs to expand its selection if it wants to appeal to a wider audience. Online registration, payment and testing are available, but online grading is not. Like the majority of vendors, McGraw-Hill lacks instructor feedback, records of credits earned and online certificates of completion.
THE FUTURE OF ONLINE CPE
The growth potential for online CPE is unlimited. To make it successful, CPE providers must be able to offer a wide variety of affordable courses that are completely interactive in a secure environment. Essential features are online course selection, payment, testing, grading and confirmation of credit. While real-time discussions with individual instructors may not be feasible, the use of audio and video clips and links with other sources would allow access to instructors, practitioners and other authorities.
The emergence of online continuing education presents an opportunity for new and existing CPE vendors to enter the online market. The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) offers the CMA exam on demand at various testing centers throughout the United States. Even though the exam is not available online, this type of exam delivery demonstrates that the accounting profession is sensitive to the need to provide services on demand. Perhaps sometime in the near future the IMA and the AICPA will offer their certification exams as well via the Internet. (See Brave New World for the CPA Exam, JofA, Jan.98, page 61, for details.) The use of emerging technologies will continue to shape the methods of delivering CPE into the next century and beyond. Those choosing to become involved either as course providers or participants have a tremendous opportunity to benefit from this cutting-edge development.