Just as required knowledge and skills change over time, so does the way we acquire them. Continuing professional education has been around for decades, and with things ever-changing, you can expect the requirements to accumulate CPE courses and credits to increase in the future.

As the accounting profession goes forward, and technology and the need to acquire other competencies introduce changes, there’s an ever-increasing universe of knowledge required to stay competitive and current.

To help you get a handle on where we are in terms of CPE, and some of the places we might be headed, we surveyed seven of the leading providers of CPE courses and credits. These included several state societies, the American Institute of CPAs, and a number of private CPE providers. Keep in mind that these are far from the only places where you can earn credit. Other providers include colleges, and even local and national accounting shows.

Specialized CPE is also offered by societies and organizations that administer and sponsor certification programs. You may even be able to gain credit for courses taken in other countries. Keep in mind that the phrase “CPE credit” does not actually guarantee that the credit you earn from a particular course or seminar will actually be applicable to your requirements for remaining certified as a CPA or in a certification specialty.

Tracking and managing CPE credit is important, according to Jassen Bowman, chief marketing officer of course provider Prolaera: “Course tracking and management is important for a number of reasons. First, firms want a convenient way to gauge staff compliance with their CPE requirements. Second, many professionals have multiple, overlapping CPE requirements, or special CPE requirements for specific practice areas. Also, a CPA may have licenses in multiple states and/or also maintain other certifications, such as the Certified Fraud Examiner or the Certified Internal Auditor, each with varying yet overlapping CPE requirements. A quality CPE tracking platform will automatically apply CPE courses you take, from any CPE provider, to the requirements for each license, certification and special situation that applies.”

Bill Sheridan, chief communications officer for the Maryland Association of CPAs’ Business Learning Institute, added, “A sophisticated learning management system will not only track which courses you’ve taken; it will also track which courses you need to take in order to take the next step down your career path, and alert you when it’s time to take those courses. It will also make it easy to report your progress to the appropriate regulatory bodies.”

Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting’s senior director of product development, Christopher Horne, sees CPE management as a crucial part of their offering: “One of our key features is CPE tracking. We research the unique CPE rules and requirements of over 70 different jurisdictions, so when you enter your CPE credits into Checkpoint Learning, you not only see what you have taken, but what else you still need to do in order to be compliant with your license/certification renewal CPE requirements. Organizations can look across their learners and spot learning needs early, and schedule training to meet specific needs.”

The littlest next big thing
Content is not the only way that CPE is changing, though it is a welcome evolution. Delivery of this content is also evolving from staid hours of formal sit-behind-a-desk school-type lectures and seminars. Lectures haven’t gone away, nor are they likely to. There’s just too much content already available in this format, and some accountants learn best in a formal structured environment. But as the cliché goes, “Variety is the spice of life.”

One delivery trend that’s starting to become popular is nano-courses. A nano-course is a very short course, generally about 10 minutes or so, often delivering two-tenths of an hour of CPE credit. With CPE requirements for maintaining CPA certification running 40 hours or so, nano-courses are obviously not going to be the primary method of collecting required CPE hours.

Still, the idea of being able to accumulate at least a little credit, and some knowledge, at the end of a lunch hour or between finishing one task and beginning another, is attractive to many users, and vendors, of CPE. But not all of them.

Ken Koskay, CPA, CFP, senior director of global accounts for Becker Professional Education, doesn’t see nano-courses as being a major influence on CPE: “While nano-learning is interesting, there has not been wide-scale adoption of nano-courses and customers have not demanded these courses. Only a few states have approved awarding CPE credit for completion of nano-courses.”

Prolaera’s Bowman doesn’t agree. “Over the next two to three years, we’re (hopefully) going to see more states adopt the new [National Association of State Boards of Accountancy] standards and embrace nano-learning and hybrid course formats as an allowable option. This will greatly expand the use of mobile technology, in particular for CPE completion. Prolaera was built from scratch around the nano-learning concept, but also to function within the existing self-study framework and the standard 50-minute CPE hour that all but a few states still mandate. For the states that embrace nano-learning, our customers can break courses down into shorter stand-alone nano versions with just a few clicks.”

Michael McKenzie Grant, director of learning design and development for the American Institute of CPAs, points out several reasons why this different approach is desirable. “Attention spans are shrinking, Internet bandwidth is getting faster and more widespread in many geographic areas (especially in the U.S.), which is increasing the momentum for more nano-learning courses,” he explained. “Providing short segments of instruction and helpful resources empowers the just-in-time performance support that modern learners greatly value.”

Becker’s Koskay believes that virtual reality is another possible direction for CPE: “There are many potential uses of virtual reality that could be applied to teaching CPAs. For example, virtual reality courses could be developed to teach auditors how to perform an audit, including client interviews and forensic investigative techniques.”

Yet another technology impacting CPE is the increase in working on the go. “The proliferation and prevalence of mobile computing, social media and even wearable technology, has made learning available 24/7 and accessible anywhere the learner happens to be,” according to Eric Scott of the Illinois CPA Society. “This is huge shift. A few years ago, the learner had to go to a finite place at a finite time — classroom or computer — to access a learning experience. Now, I can learn a new skill or obtain new knowledge via a nano-course from my smartphone or pull up a training video from my smartwatch. Learning can now happen or take place whenever I want and wherever I happen to be.”

Thomson Reuters’ Horne is also very positive about making content easily available no matter where or when the student might choose to access it. “Like so much of our economy, learners have come to expect and demand content and learning on their terms,” Horne said. “The move away from limited, gated or scheduled learning fits with consumers’ consumption of services like Uber, grocery delivery or other home services. We expect that this trend will continue and learning providers will be pushed to continue to offer up more flexibility and offer up responsiveness to meet this demand. The march towards interactive, more engaged learning can be seen in the move away from simple, flat learning content to more engaging, diverse and robust learning. That internal learning has become much more focused on company-specific processes and/or use cases.”

Anytime/anywhere learning is also an approach Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting endorses. “More than ever, practitioners and firms are looking for relevant, on-demand training and CPE that helps them anticipate and meet increased workload and client demands,” said Wendy Becker, director of CCH Learning Solutions.

“Further, the expansion of virtual offices and flexible work accommodations requires that training delivery methods evolve. These trends require course content and tools to be accessible online 24/7 from wherever the practitioner is located.”

Variety is also important, with many firms and users choosing different delivery approaches to satisfy their CPE requirements. The AICPA’s Grant emphasized, “A greater emphasis on increasing learner engagement has occurred. Empirical data on brain-based learning has proven that simulations, real-world case studies, and breakout discussions in live sessions or real-time group sessions on online platforms heightens learner engagement, resulting in improved retention and competency building.”

Wolters Kluwer’s Becker added, “We have seen increased demand for interactive, multimedia content delivery that allows for hands-on application of key learning through examples and case studies.”

The Illinois CPA Society has also embraced this multi-dimensional approach. “The society’s in-person events, whether it be a small course or large conference, contain features such as online polling that introduces new information to the learner; small-group discussions around a case study; role-playing exercises; simulations that mirror a task performed in the workplace; and games, such as Jeopardy, that allow learners to hold on to the new information delivered. The instructors behave more as ‘facilitators’ than as ‘lecturers,’” Scott said.

“With our OnDemand courses,” he continued, “we’ve eliminated the 60- or 90-minute video lecture and replaced it with a series of two-to-three-minute video clips. In between the video clips, the online learner enjoys various interactive exercises, including fun multiple-choice formats that allow learners to drag an object with their mouse and drop it in the correct spot, online simulations that require the learner to make a decision based on the data presented, and ‘gamified’ knowledge checks that advance the learner to the next level of play with every correct answer.”

Have it your way
The content itself is also playing a greater part in today’s CPE. According to MACPA’s Sheridan, “In the near future, we’ll see more emphasis on just-in-time delivery of content in whatever format is most convenient to the consumer. And that content will focus more on so-called soft skills — the competencies that study after study tells us are the skills that accounting and finance professionals will need to succeed going forward. These skills include strategic and critical thinking, collaboration, communication and, perhaps most important, anticipation — the ability to spot the weak signals of disruptive change and do something about them before they arrive.”

Custom curricula and content packaging is another increasingly popular trend in CPE. Depending on the circumstances, CPE has two goals and benefits.

One is simply to maintain a level of professionalism in a field that’s undergoing increasing change. Another is to develop new skills that can be put to practical use, either at the instigation of firm management or individual initiative. Career development can be an important byproduct of CPE, but developing new skills requires a CPE curriculum that’s well thought out and, in many cases, developed professionally.

AICPA vice president of member learning and competency Clar Rosso puts it this way: “The key to packaging content is a firm understanding of where specific employees excel and which competencies they need to develop. If you do this, then you can customize learning paths for each employee, which is more efficient for both the organization and the individual.”

Both Thomson Reuters’ Horne and Wolters Kluwer’s Becker agreed. “We see this in the uptick in both interest and application for things like certification programs or learning tracks. Practices are looking for the opportunity to define curricula for their core business, and easily implement a pre-selected course group to educate on more specific topics as needed,” Horne said.

Added Becker, “Firms are increasingly exploring and implementing learning paths and custom curricula for staff development. Many firms are using on-demand CPE to develop critical skills in their next generation of managers and partners.”

Learning for a lifetime
CPE is a necessary part of professional life. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be approached as an arduous chore. With all of the new technologies and delivery approaches available today — and those on the horizon for tomorrow — picking up new skills and knowledge can be enjoyable, as well as rewarding.

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.