3 Lessons for Creating Online Certification Programs

The desire to provide value in a changing marketplace is one of the reasons the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants moved beyond in-person tutors, trainers, and test centers to offer online learning and assessment for candidates pursuing the Chartered Global Management Accountant designation.

Like many organizations, one of our greatest challenges at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) is to provide relevant learning and continuous professional development to our members and students.

As technology continues to change the way businesses operate, the competencies our members must have in order to provide value to their organizations also are changing—which, in turn, has driven us to change the way we operate.

The desire to provide value in a changing marketplace is one of the reasons we’ve moved beyond in-person tutors, trainers, and test centers to offer online learning and assessment for candidates pursuing the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation.

If your association is creating online learning, take a look at these three valuable lessons we learned from developing a custom online learning experience at AICPA.

The Project

Our goal was to develop an online learning and assessment solution designed to prepare candidates to take the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) exam and ultimately gain one of the most prestigious designations in finance and accounting.

More than 150,000 finance professionals have attained this certification around the world, which requires each learner to pass the rigorous case study exam.

Here’s what we learned through this process:

Lesson 1: Videos and text alone cannot replace in-person training.

Traditional face-to-face classroom training to attain the CGMA designation is a demanding commitment that requires candidates to dedicate a large amount of their time. We wanted to create the same depth level of training in an online environment.

Our first instinct was to go with what has become the traditional online learning model: Provide information by means of video and/or text, then test for knowledge acquisition.

But it quickly became obvious that this approach was not going to create the needed proficiency in key competencies, which today go beyond traditional finance and accounting mechanics into the areas of strategic planning and problem solving.

This led us to the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Learners need to practice applying knowledge. 

The key piece missing from the traditional approach was at the application level. It is not enough for CGMA candidates to master knowledge; they must be able to apply that knowledge in situations that may be a lot murkier than the simple examples typical of most online content presentations.

Learners have to be able to weave their way through the complexity real life presents. To achieve that, we needed a different approach to online learning, one that exceeds simply presenting data to digest and enables learners to develop the skills needed to be of real value to their organizations.

There is much about our new CGMA training that pushes the envelope, but at the heart of it is a pedagogy with a heavy focus on application.

Learners do learn by watching and reading, but the deepest learning occurs within complex business simulations and interactive exercises through which they must successfully navigate in order to put new knowledge into practice—in other words, to develop skills.

The path through these exercises is not an easy one, and most candidates experience a degree of failure. But failure is a learning experience in its own right, and candidates learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes.

Lesson 3: Not all learners begin with the same level of knowledge.

We also are developing a true adaptive learning solution. The course is designed to be modular, developing proficiency in a variety of competencies at three levels: basic, intermediate, and advanced.

An initial assessment for each competency places learners at the level matching their current knowledge and skills, then takes them forward into full mastery. The system also adjusts to a learner’s speed, slowing down or accelerating as needed.

The learner must pass a test to be considered proficient in a competency and eligible to move forward. If he or she fails the assessment, the system identifies the topic(s) where remediation is required.

All of this takes place on a simple, intuitive, and learner-centric platform that is just the first step on a long road to delivering an innovative and unique learning and assessment system for CGMAs worldwide.

The CGMA course is a product of two years of evolution. We launched in September 2017 and have been responding to user feedback since then to refine—and in some cases, redo—parts of our learner experience.

But we feel that every piece of feedback—positive and negative—ultimately results in a product that is continuously improving, allowing us to push the envelope ever further in the world of online learning.

Joe McLatchie is senior manager at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), where he oversees projects focused around the CGMA designation.


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