Distance Learning – FAQ

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We’ve gotten a good response to our article “Training in the Age of COVID-19 The Distance Learning Option.”  Thanks to all of you who submitted questions.  Here are our responses.

  1. We agree with the need to set goals for our distance learning and definitely do not subscribe to “get them their 40 hours” approach.   Do you have any suggestions for what might be “reasonable goals” given everything the firm is going through right now?

    In general, we believe in setting high goals for your learning programs.  Don’t settle for mediocre and always strive for improvement.  All firms want to be known for their excellence—nobody pitches prospects with “we’re not bad.”  The learning group has to hold themselves to that same professional standard.

    That being said, we are certainly in a time of rapid change and unprecedented uncertainty as we look to the future.  Learning managers have to carefully gauge the firm’s capacity for “continuous improvement” in the midst of such upheaval.

    On balance, here’s what seems reasonable to us:

  • No drop off in learning outcomes.  Your distance learning courses in the current year should be able to achieve the same learning objectives with the same effectiveness as the training you conducted in the past.

    The challenge will not be in setting learning objectives, it will be in achieving the same level of learning effectiveness.  That’s where talented instructional designers come into play and subject matter experts must ratchet up their creativity.  It’s a solvable problem.

  • A relatively frictionless and enjoyable learning experience.  Your learners are already going through A LOT.  The last thing you want is to deliver a learning experience that is at best a tolerable slog.

  • Alleviate feelings of isolation and help bring people together.  It is common for people working from home to feel isolated and disconnected, especially those who are accustomed to working on teams and in an office surrounded by colleagues.  Well-designed distance learning can go a long way toward emulating that environment, helping people reconnect with a sense of shared purpose and camaraderie.   Don’t squander the opportunity.

    2. You talk about the need for training materials and activities and case studies, etc.   We have outsourced our training for years.  What should we do?

    Start by trying to track down training materials that were developed by groups outside the learning department.  You might be surprised at how many rogue training sessions have been conducted by SMEs over the years.  Some of these materials might be very good, so get your hands on them if you can.

    Many firms subscribe to e-learning libraries such as Linkedin Learning.  These libraries tend to be underutilized, which means that there are probably dozens of relevant titles that no one has taken yet.

    And when those first two options dry up, turn to the internet, home to a veritable treasure trove of on-point, high quality content.  Back in the day the catch phrase was “content is king,” but that is no longer the case.  Free content is everywhere.

    3. Our firm is very reluctant to change or try something new.  Long webcasts might not be a very good option, but it’s something we know.  I’m afraid to try something new that doesn’t work.

    If you as a learning director really want to pursue a more effective learning design, then my first suggestion is to define how the issue is framed.  That’s why setting goals that everyone buys into is so important.  If the firm agrees that it wants to provide an experience that achieves high level learning outcomes, then that’s the problem you’re trying to solve.  Of course, that goal will be tempered by constraints and conditions, but at least you’ve gotten everyone to agree that you want high quality.

    You might find a way to make six-hour webcasts work for you, and that’s great.  Just be sure to measure any proposed solution against the goal you all have agreed on.

    Aversion to change typically is a risk management strategy. As you said, people are hesitant to try something new because there’s a risk it might not work.

    Take some of the risk out of your distance learning initiative by pilot testing it with a small but supportive group who is not averse to change.  Get their feedback and tweak the program before rolling it out to the masses.  One of the great things about distance learning is that you don’t have to rent space months in advance.  You can design a curriculum that includes a pilot test in, say June, and a full scale rollout over the rest of the summer, which allows you to continuously improve the program.

    4. How do I make sure everyone gets CPE credit?

    First, a quick overview for those of you not familiar with the CPE regulations.  These rules are set by National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (jointly with AICPA).  A training provider who meets the rules is “certified” by NASBA, which means that the courses offered by the provider will be accepted for CPE credit by the State Board.  It is common for CPA firms to be a registered CPE provider, which is how firm-sponsored training qualifies for CPE.

    If you were looking for a respite from over-regulation and standards overload, don’t look to the NASBA CPE rules.  These rules vary depending on the type of training provided.  Rules for live seminars are different for the rules for on-line learning.  Seminars that combine the two types are subject to a third set of rules.

    We are not in the business of advising firms on how to comply with NASBA CPE regulations.  But for those at firms tasked with ensuring compliance, we offer the following observations.

  • The standards make it clear that the classification of a training type depends—not on the technology used to deliver the training—but on how the participant consumes the learning.  In other words, just because training content is delivered on-line does not mean that the firm must comply with the regulations related to “on-line” training.

  • The only type of training most firms are NASBA certified to provide is “group live,” so we recommend that firms design their distance learning programs to meet the NASBA definition of “group live.”  We believe that training of the type we have described can be designed in a way that qualifies for the “group live” set of rules.
  1. What about the technology requirements/our Learning Management System (LMS) doesn’t support this type of training/we hate (don’t have) an LMS.
    If it’s been a few years since you’ve looked for an LMS, it’s worth your while to check out the current offerings.  You’re looking at a mature market, which is very good for buyers.  You’ll find a number of very affordable, feature-rich options.

A couple of things we’ve noticed about accounting firms and their LMS:

There’s a tendency to overpay for features that aren’t necessary.  Most of the leading LMS are designed for very large companies with thousands of learners to manage.  Many of the features necessary to manage that many people aren’t needed by accounting firms that are training only a few hundred each year.

Firms tend to overvalue the importance of CPE tracking.  Our recommendation is to focus on the learner experience and the ability to create highly effective learning at a reasonable cost.

I would much rather be the person who delivers high value learning but has to kludge together a CPE tracking process than the one who cuts down on CPE admin costs by delivering mediocre learning through a cumbersome user experience.

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