Just-in-Time Accounting Education

By Jacqueline Burke and Nathan Slavin

In Brief

Interactive, Convenient, and Cost-effective

Accounting education is changing rapidly due to the Internet explosion and the increased popularity of distance learning. The largest firms are using distance learning to mitigate the effects of staff shortages and provide training on an as-needed basis. Colleges and universities are offering business degrees over the Internet. CPA review courses and CPE programs are being delivered online to candidates and professionals.

Some believe that there is still a place for the face-to-face interaction of the live classroom, but technological advances over the next five years may make distance learning so effective, financially attractive, and convenient for busy professionals that the traditional classroom will seem antiquated.

Accounting education is changing rapidly due to the increased popularity of the Internet and distance learning. Business students are now enrolling in college and university degree programs without ever setting foot on campus.

Accounting firms will soon be recruiting these nontraditional students. Meanwhile, the Big Five are already using distance learning to counter the shortage of accountants by providing accounting education to nonaccounting graduates and to promote continuing professional education and lifelong learning to their employees. Distance learning courses can be accessed from various convenient locations; the actual training often occurs at the student's discretion and is delivered just in time for the task at hand.

What Is Distance Learning?

Teacher and student are physically separated during a major part of the distance learning process. Today, however, "distance learning" may be better defined as education in which teacher and student, while physically separated, are intellectually connected via technology.

A significant number of accounting CPE self-study programs use some form of distance learning. Accountants can earn CPE credits by

1) reading selected course materials at home, in print, or on a computer;
2) taking a quiz; and
3) sending the answers to the educational center for grading.

Distance education can be traced back to the correspondence courses of the 19th century. Similar to traditional home study CPE courses, students used self-study print materials and corresponded with instructors through the mail. More recently, distance learning programs have taken advantage of new technologies, such as audiocassettes, videocassettes, and personal computers with CD-ROMs.

Today, an increasing number of distance learning programs utilize the Internet's capacity for interactivity. KPMG, for example, provides distance continuing education and training to its employees via audio- and videoconferencing, whereby individuals can see and interact with each other in real time. One online CPE provider, eMind.com, plans to integrate threaded discussion forums into its course offerings so that students can ask questions and discuss concepts while proceeding at their own pace. There is no instructor, and the course material can be accessed from the Internet anytime, anywhere. According to eMind.com CEO Howard Marks, "Our learners are professionals with busy schedules. Therefore, we make our learning available twenty-four hours a day." Twelve state societies, including New York, California, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, along with the accounting firm Grant Thornton, have enlisted eMind.com as their CPE provider.

Current Trends

Distance learning is becoming an attractive way for employers to provide continuous training to their employees. Corporations are contracting with universities directly or recruiting their faculty to develop distance learning programs. For example, Colorado State University has contracted with other institutions to provide distance learning programs to its employees so that they can earn distance learning certificates and MBA degrees. AT&T offers approximately 40% of its business courses on the Internet and has integrated its programs with the University of Phoenix. Students can receive technical training and credits toward an academic degree.

Ernst & Young has entered into a joint venture with two universities to deliver "Your Master Plan," the firm's newly developed program to train nonaccounting business majors as accountants. Participants can earn a master's degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame or the University of Virginia in 15 months. For five weeks during the summer, the students live on campus and attend full-time an intensive accounting readiness program. They complete all of the basic accounting courses during this period. After the summer program, students work full-time on Ernst & Young's assurance services staff. In both the fall and spring, while working full-time, the students subscribe to interactive video teleconferencing classes delivered directly to their desktops at more than 22 different locations. The software used enables faculty to "push" slides over the network to each student. Both students and faculty can use their keyboards to ask and answer questions. After completing the distance learning courses, the Ernst & Young employees return to campus full-time to complete their master's degree in accounting.

According to Richard Klingshirn, an Ernst & Young partner, approximately 100 students currently enrolled in "Your Master Plan" expect to graduate this August. Ernst & Young pays for all costs, including tuition, room and board, books, and transportation. In return, the students must work for the firm for at least three years.

In-Firm Professional Development and Training

The largest accounting firms are incorporating distance learning courses into their training programs. For example, Ernst & Young has been delivering distance learning to its professional staff since 1994, first through satellite videoconferencing and more recently through telecommunication. The objective of the firm's program, known as LEAP (Learning Environment to Accelerate Performance), is to provide high-quality professional training in a just-in-time delivery mode. Prior to attending, employees receive preliminary training via CD-ROM that provides a common foundation on the topic being presented.

Ernst & Young has recently contracted the software company Netpodium to transmit LEAP over the Internet to more than 400 sites worldwide. Employees can conveniently access a training class from their desktop, typing questions and receiving responses from an instructor in real time. Ernst & Young uses videoconferencing for small groups at its local offices, satellite broadcasts at 15 of its largest offices, and 45 remote satellite classrooms for larger groups.

In 1997, KPMG began providing distance professional education and training to more than 23,000 employees through a two-way audio- and videoconferencing system. Real-time training for staff, managers, and partners in groups of 25­45 people is available at more than 40 locations. Each trainee is electronically linked to the other trainees and the instructor by a keypad, which is used to ask and answer questions and discuss the topic being presented. Video cameras enable the trainees and the instructor to see each other. Thus, according to Jeanne Joslin, KPMG director of distance learning, the training programs are "seminar-like," with lively discussion. When asked the biggest challenge of providing such a training program, Joslin answered, "The distance learning team needs to have all of the necessary skills, the technology must be reliable, the presenters need to be rehearsed, and the program must be of high quality."

Because the firm does not have to fly individuals to training centers, travel time and costs are substantially reduced. KPMG surveyed its participants and found them to be just as satisfied or more satisfied than those receiving traditional training. In the second year, the number of participants almost doubled, to 18,000.

Arthur Andersen offers web-based training to corporate entities through its Virtual Learning Network (AAVLN), which provides customized courses over the Internet. Topics include computer literacy and applications, finance and accounting, sales and marketing, and supervisory and employment development.

CPA Review

Self-study courses for exam preparation were first offered using print materials, then audio- and videocassettes, and have now progressed to CD-ROM and online video programs. Bisk-Totaltape and CPAexcel offer programs on the Internet. Bisk-Totaltape students can access chat groups and communicate in real time with the instructor and other students. CPAexcel provides personal guidance and assistance from seminar professors through online discussion forums. Finally, Kaplan, the pioneer in test-preparation courses, offers a video course that can be accessed online and a 24-hour tutoring line through which students receive responses to individual questions via e-mail. Kaplan also provides text materials, software, flashcards, and thousands of questions from actual CPA examinations.

Distance Learning Technology

The technology used to deliver distance learning courses is generally grouped into two delivery modes: synchronous (real time) or asynchronous (delayed time). Many distance learning courses involve a combination of both.

In synchronous distance courses, live instructors are physically separated from the students. Students can often interact with the instructor and other students in real time. Conversely, in asynchronous courses instructor and student are in a "different time/different place" or "different time/same place" mode. Examples of synchronous delivery modes are two-way audio and video courses, as well as group-based technologies such as chat groups. Asynchronous delivery modes are often used to support synchronous instruction and include electronic mail, bulletin boards, newsgroups, groupware, telephone support lines, fax lines, and videotapes. The accompanying Exhibit lists types of support available for distance learning.

Synchronous Technologies

Videoconferencing is the most common real-time distance learning medium and often the most desirable, because both verbal and nonverbal communication can be relayed. Wireless satellite signals or wired telecommunication lines can transmit the information to the distance learning sites. The instructor can teach the course either to a live group or from a remote location. Videoconferencing lessons can be delivered to a group of students in the same room (room-based videoconferencing) or to each student's desktop (desktop videoconferencing).

During satellite classes, real-time interaction can be accomplished through a toll-free telephone number or a special audio bridge­telephone connection. An obvious benefit is that students can see the instructor. Some satellite courses have used other forms of technology such as fax or e-mail for supplemental instruction and communication.

When using wired telecommunication lines, equipment in a standard videoconferencing classroom commonly includes video cameras, monitors, and microphones linked to a computing center. Similar equipment is in the instructor's room, enabling students and instructor to both see and talk to each other. The computing center contains an electronic device called a video codec (COder/DECoder). The codec modifies the analog video signals and audio input into digital format. However, the video is not transmitted at the same sharpness and speed found in conventional television reception. ISDN lines are limited in the amount of information that can be transmitted, and video must be compressed before it is transmitted. Consequently, there is a slight delay between the time the video is sent and the time it is received by the audience.

In desktop videoconferencing, telephone lines transmit video images to desktop computers at multiple locations. Special equipment is required, and three ISDN lines are needed for good picture quality. One line is connected to the file server of a local area network, the second to a multimedia workstation, and the third to the videoconferencing equipment.

According to eMind.com Vice President Mark Mishkind, the video quality possible over standard modem bandwidths is poor, and even companies with high bandwidth access have trouble accommodating simultaneous usage. Because of these constraints, desktop videoconferencing is not the preferred delivery mechanism at the moment. In the near future, computer technology may greatly improve transmission quality.

Other technologies can supplement both synchronous and asynchronous distance learning courses. For example, Prentice Hall provides an online study hall that enables students using its textbooks to chat with their classmates and instructor.

Asynchronous Technologies

The attraction of asynchronous learning is convenience: Students can access asynchronous programs and courses on demand. Additionally, some web-based training programs are highly interactive, which can result in a more involving learning process. The fastest growing asynchronous programs are available on the Internet or intranet and are commonly referred to as web-based training. For example, Arthur Andersen uses several web-based courses that range from two hours (diagnostic business audit) to 40 hours (business audit tool set) in length.

Cost Savings

A big advantage of distance learning is that it enables companies to hire nationally known instructors to provide cost-efficient training. From one location, a "star" instructor can train individuals at various locations nationally--or even worldwide. Robert Dean, director of learning innovation for Ernst & Young in New York City, recently presented a seminar to employees in Florida from his New York office.

Additionally, more than one class can be trained at the same time. An instructor can teach from an office in New York City to groups at training centers in California, Florida, and Massachusetts. Trainees benefit from instruction by a well-known, well-prepared professional without traveling to a central site. And the organization benefits through reduced transportation and lodging costs and lost work time.

Although start-up costs are likely to be high, the return on investment can quickly justify the decision. For example, KPMG's investment per distance learning site ranged $75,000­90,000. Despite the high telecommunication costs--KPMG spends $100 per hour for line costs--the firm estimates it saved more than $1 million the first year alone.

Future Possibilities

Distance learning programs will not eliminate the traditional classroom. There will always be students that prefer live interaction with their peers and teachers. Similarly, there will always be accountants that prefer to attend a live regional conference to see acclaimed experts. For these students and professionals, the social interaction provided by
traditional learning will always be important. However, as the demand for lifelong learning increases and technological improvements enable us to truly simulate a live classroom, the growth in distance learning will likely explode, as the World Wide Web has in the past five years. Imagine how the next five years will change distance learning.

Jacqueline Burke, PhD, CPA, is an accounting instructor at Hofstra University and a doctoral candidate in the Business Education/Accounting Program at New York University.
Nathan Slavin, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at Hofstra University.

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