Online Learning: Is NASBA Listening?

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As an adjunct faculty member, I’ve taught several courses within a master's in organizational leadership program, and now I'm starting a new endeavor: leading my first online course for a university.

With this new understanding of how universities have created online learning communities, which can be just as effective as a live classroom setting, I can clearly see the accounting profession has a lot to learn about online education – CPE in particular.

And we better learn these lessons quickly because online learning has become the norm rather than the exception. The virtual environment has transformed the business of CPE. We can now earn requisite CPE hours for a fraction of the cost from the comforts of our office or home. However, due to regulatory constraints, the method for online delivery leaves little space for actual learning.

While each jurisdiction has its own CPE rules, many states comply with or look to the rules set forth by the Statement on Standards for Continuing Professional Education (CPE) Programs, a publication that was jointly approved by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). In regards to group Internet programs, the standards indicate one earns credit by responding to at least three polling questions for each CPE credit hour. This is a pretty passive task and one that lends itself to fraud. Yes, I used the "F" word. It is quite easy to cheat on an exam that requires only three mouse clicks while one simultaneously completes work on a second monitor.

In contrast, when taking a university course online, one has to do more than click an occasional pop-up. University students post to discussion boards that instructors will evaluate for analysis and synthesis. The students can leave the virtual main classroom to participate in labs, thereby creating an environment where they can talk with one another – and by talk, I do mean using one’s voice and not just chatting via written messages. While in these labs, the students share how the theory applies to their organizational lives, learn from one another’s insights, and come back to the main classroom to discuss what they learned with everyone else in the virtual class. The entire classroom can also see one another via a video or picture, thereby making the experience more human, personal, and connected.

CPE rules are ultimately intended to protect consumers. I see the current standards for online learning as a disservice to both the advancement of the profession and to the public that we serve. We need to move away from the “how many clicks does it take to get the certificate” approach and toward a virtual environment that supports active learning.

One might view this issue as substance over form. Solely looking to participation pop-ups is a legal form that indicates a person earned CPE credit, but it lacks the substance that presents a true and fair view of a person’s actual learning.

During my tenure in learning and development for a public accounting firm, I saw many opportunities to improve accounting education. I see improvements to the virtual learning environment as a top priority. I presume this is something NASBA is working on, but much like release dates of CPA exam scores in 2010, it isn't sharing information in a timely manner. And to my knowledge, NASBA isn't asking the younger generations – who likely completed a university course online – how they want to learn.

So now is your time, folks. How do you want to learn? What is working about the delivery of CPE in a virtual environment? What is missing? NASBA, are you listening?

About the author:
Amber Setter, CPA, MA, is a professional coach, leadership consultant, and university instructor. More about her is available at:


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I have taught college-level courses online for many years. Well-designed online courses can be just as good, or even better, than many classroom-based courses.
Ms. Setter suggests that some attendants at online CPE courses may not participate as fully as desired. But isn't that possible in most in-person CPE sessions as well? If we are trying to document a "true and fair view of a person's learning," don't we need to measure this learning through some sort of exam?

I have taught Accounting and Honors Finance and Strategy Formulation & Implementation at Ohio State and I teach 100 fraud, auditing, ethics and corporate strategy classes both live and online. Ms. Setter fails to understand that college and CPE are fundamentally different. The difference is that to earn a degree students MUST certain courses. Professionals, including CPAs, take classes voluntarily. A few years ago the AICPA proposed competency-based CPE where 'student's would have to pass a test to get CPE credit. I wrote the then CPE Director that it wouldn't work for at least 3 reasons...
1. If I'm the instructor and I don't get paid unless the 'student' passes, I'll create tests so easy a first grader could pass them.
2. That would require a bureaucracy staffed by people who know more about my material than I do to make sure the my tests are at the appropriate level.
3. When CPAs know the tests are not easy to pass, and if they don't they don't get CPE credit, the CPAs will take the easiest course they can. So a 20 year tax CPA will take taxes 101 to be certain to get credit. That would another bureaucracy to make sure CPAs take courses appropriate to our experience and knowledge.

And competency-based proposal disappeared.

Thus Ms. Setter's system will work only if CPAs are required to take specific courses and pass an exam to demonstrate they learned NEW material.

My concern here is the cost of any such modification of CPE requirements. I do not think that an end of session quiz is as onerous as most claim. do a multiple choice, T/F type quiz. Maybe open book/ multiple attempts may be necessary. I think we also need to trust CPAs and their judgement in selecting proper CPE and attending CPE honestly. We are all required to take ethics courses and are heavily regulated as is. just my 2 cents though.