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Competency, Compliance and Technology: Inside the Future of Learning

June 20, 2018

As a CPE provider, the VSCPA prides itself on keeping pace with the latest educational trends. That’s why our staff kept a close eye on the American Institute of CPAs’ (AICPA) Future of Learning Task Force as it prepared its recommendations, released last year.

The task force boiled its year-long research project into four broad points of emphasis:

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

The VSCPA was lucky enough to have a member on the inside of the task force. Dr. Nancy Bagranoff, CPA, professor of accounting and dean of the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, was one of four education representatives on the task force, and she sat down with us to shed some light on the process and recommendations.

The big question

The success or failure of any educational initiative can be distilled into four simple words: “What did you learn?” That question is at the heart of the Future of Learning project.

“In higher education, we talk about assurance of learning quite a bit,” Bagranoff said. “It’s a way of measuring competency. We create rubrics that measure different things depending on our learning goals. If we have a learning goal, for instance, with respect to writing, we will look at sentence construction, grammar, whether or not an argument was made — many different aspects of it.

“Assurance of learning, I think, involves creating rubrics that are able to measure competency, based on what your goals are for that particular learning.”

Assurance of learning hits at all four of the task force’s recommendations. Focusing on the appropriate knowledge for the audience personalizes education and challenges CPE takers to engage with the material in order to become better at their jobs. And the measurement of what takers learned is the key to developing courses that prepare them for life in the profession.

Bagranoff describes the distinction in measurement as one of input vs. output. It’s about measuring what CPE takers take away from a class.

“When we’re measuring input, we’re saying, ‘This person sat through this class, watched this video or participated in this one-hour webinar,’ and we’re counting the time,” she said. “That’s an input-based model of measuring education. The output-based model is measuring competency. We often do that through testing, but that’s really not what we’re trying to get at. We’re trying to get at competency in different ways.”

AICPA Future of Learning Task Force Members 
AICPA Accounting Firms State Societies 
Lawson Carmichael (co-chair) Eric Dingler, Deloitte Cindy Adams, Iowa
Anthony Pugliese (co-chair) Eric Hansen, BKD Jeannine Birmingham, Alabama
Regulatory Kathy Johnson, CPA Forensics Plus Jennifer Briggs, Indiana
Maria Caldwell, NASBA Jason McKeever, Eide Bailly Jackie Brown, Maryland
Education Business & Industry Sharon Bryson, North Carolina
Nancy Bagranoff, CPA, U. of Richmond Mark Lewis, IRIS Software Group Mike Colgan, Pennsylvania
Allison Forrest, Harvard U. Sharon McCue, NIAS Erin Pate, South Carolina
Robert Gruber, U. of Wisconsin Alicia Sweeney, Kellory & Co. Todd Shapiro, Illinois
Jack Wilkerson, Wake Forest U. Bill Schneider, AT&T Scott Wiley, Ohio
  Jeff White, J&B Equipment Co.  

Jack Wilkerson, professor of accountancy and associate dean of the Wake Forest University School of Business, was another higher education representative on the task force. He had also been involved in the Pathways Commission, a joint project between the AICPA and the American Accounting Association (AAA) that covered similar issues from a higher-education perspective.

Wilkerson stressed the importance of the profession breaking out of its comfort zone, something he’s had to deal with in academia.

“This model where we have these fixed semesters and fixed hours per day is hard to break out of,” he said. “We’re making changes, but we’re no farther along than the AICPA and the state societies are on continuing education. It’s a new world, but we’re in many ways stuck in the same places that we were before.”

Focus on how, not what

Instructional techniques were another key focus in the recommendations. While topic selection remains vitally important in enabling CPAs to stay on top of the latest developments, the way those topics are being taught is just as influential. That wasn’t lost on the task force members from higher education.

“I had been hammering the faculty on curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. It dawned on me that what was missing from that conversation is pedagogy,” Wilkerson said. “What was missing is how we asked the students to learn. That’s more important than the curriculum itself. They’re both important, but how you ask the student to digest that is huge.”

And one way to ensure students digest that information is to interact with them rather than teaching to them.

“Standing up in front of a group of students and lecturing can work, to some extent, in some subjects,” Bagranoff said. “But for many subjects, having that dialogue or interaction is the most important thing.”

“Case studies are a great way to learn,” she added. “At universities, we’ve been experimenting with those for a long time. We know that they really allow you to go deep in learning. The old model of lecturing still has some place, depending on types of material, but the more interaction you have, I think, the better the learning. Cases afford an opportunity for a lot of interaction and dialogue. The student is figuring something out themselves, and if you can do that, you’re really going to have learning that sticks.”

Bagranoff has taken that to heart in her own classes at Richmond, spending her allotted time with students on interactive dialogue instead of lectures, which she sometimes provides electronically. And that hints at a major driver for the Future of Learning initiative — technology. Looking back, online courses represented the first shot across the bow at the traditional CPE model. The rise of on-demand CPE marked another shift, and one current trend, nano-learning, is the latest disruptor.

“Imagine that you have several lessons in, say, revenue recognition, and you have several hours’ worth of tutorials available,” Bagranoff said. “But you have different pieces or aspects of revenue recognition that you want to teach. You could break that up into small chunks and have 10-minute lessons, five-minute lessons, 15-minute lessons. Those could be available on mobile so that if I’m sitting and waiting in a doctor’s office and I have 10 minutes, I can take that chunk and take that learning.”

Nano-learning was one of the major topics included in the joint Statement on Standards for Continuing Professional Education (CPE) Programs (Standards) (PDF) issued by the AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) in April. Among the recommendations were that participants must obtain a perfect score on a post-program assessment to receive credit.

Technology influenced the task force’s activities a great deal, as the group visited Silicon Valley and Deloitte University, the Big Four firm’s leadership training center in Texas. Entrepreneur Sal Khan’s Khan Academy was another influence through its free massive open online course (MOOC) library.

“From my perspective, it was necessary for state society representatives to try to put the traditional CPE business models out of mind and focus on the evolution of the learning model and how we could adapt our models to make it work,” said Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs (PICPA) CEO & Executive Director Mike Colgan, CAE, one of nine state society representatives on the task force. “Large firms and leading business schools have already begun to adapt their learning models using gaming, simulations, blended learning, et cetera, and for me, from a state society viewpoint, realized that state societies need to embrace changing our traditional business model and be willing to experiment with different learning models to meet the needs of younger and future licensees.”

The assessment dilemma

Of course, each new advancement in education brings a question of how to assess it. It’s one thing to say “We need to measure how students learn,” but another to actually develop that measurement. Fortunately, that’s easier in Virginia than in many other jurisdictions, owing to the flexible, principles-based nature of the Commonwealth’s accounting statutes. For example, the VSCPA was able to implement nano-learning opportunities almost immediately because the Virginia statutes allowed it.

But in Virginia and across the country, changes are coming to CPE. It’s imperative that education providers continue to create courses that engage today’s CPAs and get a handle on the best way to assess their learning.

“This evolution away from brick-and-mortar to more technology-based provision of education and more competency-based is going to happen, and nothing is going to stop it,” said VSCPA member Bob Cochran, CPA, an accounting professor at Longwood University in Farmville. “It’s incumbent upon the profession to ensure that even as models of delivery change, that they still maintain a level of quality that we’ve come to expect from the people that we licensed.

“They need to make sure that the quality of the information that they’re offering in these new delivery methods exists, that we’re assessing the right things and that we’re assessing the right people.”

One such assessment conundrum exists in the case of blended learning, introduced in the aforementioned AICPA/NASBA exposure draft. Such programs include varying combinations learning or instructional methods, delivery methods and/or levels of guidance, meaning that CPE providers must be clear and open in terms of expectations. Assessments of blended programs must include at least 75 percent of the learning objectives for the program.

“I think technology affords us the ability to customize things a bit more,” Bagranoff said. “We can offer you a menu of things and you can make your choices depending on what it is you want to know. That’s a great way to ignite the passion for learning.”

The VBOA does not require pre-approval of CPE courses or for licensees to take CPE from specific or approved sponsors, but the board does encourage sponsors to comply with the Standards from the AICPA and NASBA.

A brave new world

With technology as a driver, it seems likely that the advances put forth by the AICPA, NASBA and state societies are only the beginning of the conversation about learning changes. It’s an issue that spreads well beyond the world of continuing education into the halls of our universities — and an issue that has the potential to disrupt the very essence of what these institutions do.

“I’ve been an academic all my adult life, practically, so this model where we have these fixed semesters and fixed hours per day is hard to break out of,” Wilkerson said. “We’re making changes, but we’re no farther along than the AICPA and the state societies are on continuing education. It’s a new world, but we’re in many ways stuck in the same places that we were before.”

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