How the CPA continuing education game is changing

By Ken Tysiac

A recent experiment with advisory services personnel of a top-20 CPA firm provided a glimpse of what continuing professional development might look like in the not-too-distant future.

A course on complex problem-solving, managing change, and soft skills was delivered via virtual reality (VR). Instead of learning through a classroom lecture or a webcast, professionals wore VR headsets for a completely different educational experience.

Clar Rosso, the executive vice president of Engagement & Learning Innovation for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, said the VR experience was well received by the learners, providing hope that CPAs will learn in a different way in the future.

“While we haven’t figured out how to make VR learning experiences mainstream yet due to the large, somewhat pricey headsets, I believe in the next five years, VR experiences will be a mainstream CPD offering,” she said in an interview last week.

During the AICPA spring governing Council meeting Monday, Rosso explained the need for professional development to evolve. Along with many other leaders of the profession, she believes that technological developments have fundamentally shifted the way people learn and engage with the material they are being taught.

A weekend visit to the mall will show you how people have changed. Groups of teenagers stare at their phones while laughing and joking with one another, and video game retail stores are packed with customers. At school, many of those teenagers spend classroom time collaborating on projects or debating with their peers instead of listening to lectures by their teachers.

These are the professionals of the future, and their expectations for learning will be much different from those of their parents, who grew up taking notes while instructors lectured in front of a blackboard.

For many years, the AICPA has anticipated the change in professional development needs that would be sparked by technological advancement and other factors. At spring Council five years ago, the AICPA issued its Future of Learning report, which was the result of a task force collaboration and identified four key objectives:

  • Innovate and experiment.
  • Ignite a passion for learning.
  • Make learning personal.
  • Measure what matters.

Five years later, significant progress toward those goals has been made. The VR experience is just one innovation the AICPA has pursued. Smartphone-enabled “augmented reality” experiences have been included in an interactive ethics hotline for the not-for-profit certificate, the AICPA’s blockchain certificate, and the CPA Exam promotional materials.

The AICPA also is experimenting with technology that aids in self-selective, adaptive learning. This would provide a “choose your own adventure” approach to learning. In this type of platform, a professional can start with one training module, then choose additional modules based on the content or difficulty that’s desired.

Rosso also envisions a potential use for blockchain to act as a personal learning tracker for CPAs, and she said digital badges are rising in popularity as motivation for professionals to continue learning. AICPA digital badges are digital representations that show that a professional has completed the work to achieve a specific certificate at a fundamental, intermediate, or advanced level of training. CPAs can use the badges to show that they have achieved a competency, sharing them on social media or online.

A year ago, the AICPA had issued 344 badges with 278 accepted. Now there have been more than 8,300 digital badges issued with more than 5,100 accepted.

“I think being able to personalize learning and demonstrate expertise in the marketplace helps inspire people to engage in learning,” Rosso said.

One significant challenge to the evolution of professional development remains incorporating these new methods and experiences into the hourly CPE requirements for CPA licensing renewal. When thinking about how to best deliver on the “measure what matters” objective of the Future of Learning initiative, building future-ready competencies might not fit easily into an hourly system.

Rosso cites the example of a course someone might take to learn data analytics that would have a learning lab associated with it. One CPA might need one hour to complete the lab, and another might finish the learning in two hours.

“Does it matter whether it took you one hour or two hours, or does it matter that you completed the lab and were able to demonstrate the appropriate competencies?” Rosso asked.

With that in mind, Rosso said she expects to rekindle conversations on the measurement issue. Meanwhile, the urgency for CPAs to develop their skills may be higher than ever.

Availability of key skills ranked third on the list of top 10 threats to organizations identified by CEOs in the 2019 PwC Global CEO Survey. Over-regulation and political uncertainty were the only threats CEOs identified as more serious than the lack of availability of key skills.

In this environment, as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and other technologies take over manual, repetitive, lower-level accounting tasks, CPAs will find it especially important to develop higher-level skills in areas such as data analytics and business consulting.

“The disruption of the profession really should be driving people to want to up their game and reskill themselves,” Rosso said.

Those who do decide to develop their skills have an interesting time ahead of them. Whether they’re immersed in VR or tracking their progress on a blockchain, it’s clear that CPAs will train differently than they have in the past.

“We have a tremendous opportunity,” Rosso said, “to really change the game.”

Ken Tysiac ( is the JofA’s editorial director.

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