Professional organizations enter online CPE marketplace

The convenience, flexibility and low cost of online continuing professional education has contributed to a marketplace that now includes the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' (AICPA) CPExpress, the Institute of Internal Auditors' (IIA) IIAonlineCPE Courses, and most recently, the Institute of Management Accountants' (IMA) online professional education site, IMA Knowledge Exchange and CPEdge. Packages and prices vary but all of the associations feature access to CPE courses through annual subscriptions.

Annual subscription prices for online CPE packages typically range from $150 to $400. All AICPA, IMA, and IIA packages meet Quality Assurance Standards (QAS) established by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy.

Online professional training appeals to training coordinators because it eliminates travel expense for in-person training programs, and firms do not have to work around staff time away from the office. But many continue to question the effectiveness of e-learning in certain areas and are concerned about controls on staff performance on tests.

David Tolson of the AICPA told AccountingWEB that AICPA courses have controls to promote a thoughtful and careful approach to online learning. "Students cannot race through the course, do poorly on the test, and then immediately return to retake the test, he said. A student who has not scored well on the test is locked out of the course for a period of time before he or she can return."

Studies of the effectiveness of online training in business have found that while it is very effective in some areas, face-to-face or classroom instruction works better in others, according to The Wall Street Journal. Winfred Arthur Jr., a professor of psychology and management at Texas A&M University reviewed 164 studies of various training methods' effectiveness, in a 2003 article and found that "while trainees didn't always enjoy face-to-face teaching, it produced some of the biggest knowledge jumps."

Tim Boyle, chief executive of Columbia Sportswear. Co. says that online training works best in subjects such as business ethics, according to the Journal, "where you want to make sure that every employee hears the same message."

Online training has also been very successful at Home Depot when mastery of facts is called for. But in areas such as customer service, sales and leadership, Roger Anderson director of learning for Home Depot generally favors the face-to-face training, the Journal says. "An important part of training involves having associates play back for you what they've learned," he explains. "You want them to demonstrate that they've acquired the right skills."

Before selecting a program, the AICPA recommends that individuals and training coordinators test programs to see if they meet their needs. The AICPA offers a 30-day free trial of CPExpress.

The most effective online training programs, according to Traci Sitzmann, a research scientist at the Defense Department's Advanced Distributed Learning, include the following features:

  • Letting trainees control how quickly or slowly they move through the curriculum

  • Making Web-based training part of a long course, rather than a momentary interruption in regular routines

  • Letting trainees practice the material repeatedly if necessary

  • Providing feedback to trainees during the instruction, rather than waiting until after it is completed

    All of the accounting associations discussed in this article offer incentives including access to webinars or in the case of the AICPA, special pricing or access controls for larger group purchases.

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