Technological advances have accelerated the growth in online education, where current online homework platforms, the level of faculty acceptance and use, and university promotion of these advances are as varied as the technology itself. Faculty involvement ranges from no integration to “web-enhanced” education, blended or hybrid learning, and fully online and massive open online courses (MOOC). Individual university involvement ranges from no or few online courses to fully online degree programs. Educational institutions, students, employers, and others should weigh the benefits of these options against the potential costs of programs that involve greater online use, as learning outcomes may differ from traditional programs. This article combines prior research, personal experience, and discussions with recruiters at public accounting firms to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of online learning. These factors depend upon the proportion of online and traditional courses taken, but are especially important for fully online degrees.
The Expansion of Online Courses and Programs
While for-profit online programs include well known names such as DeVry, Strayer University, and the University of Phoenix, distance learning (and, eventually, online education) goes back decades and also involves nonprofit and higher educational institutions. In the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999 report, “Distance Education at Post-Secondary Institutions: 1997–98,” 33% of all two- and four-year institutions offered distance learning through correspondence or online courses (December 1999, http://bit.ly/2vMzuSA). With improving technology, university offerings have since increased greatly; per the U.S. Department of Education’s 2008 follow-up report, 66% of all two- and four-year institutions offered online, hybrid/blended, or distance learning courses (“Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006–07,” December 2008, http://bit.ly/2vN9tmk). Enrollments in credit-granting distance learning courses increased from 1.4 million in 1997/98 to 12.2 million in 2006/07; 8% of two- and four-year institutions offered degree or certificate programs through distance learning in 1997/98, increasing to 32% in 2006/07. Moreover, evidence from the popular press states that these trends have continued, with more universities offering online/blended courses and programs, and more students taking at least one online/blended course; as of 2014, over 25% of graduate students took their entire degree online (Alana Dunagan, “The Innovator’s Dilemma Hits Higher Ed,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2017, http://on.wsj.com/2vtWvqN).
Similar to traditional universities, university online programs are now ranked. For example, TheBestSchools.orgranks Penn State, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Minnesota, and Arizona State University among the ten best online colleges. It estimates that about one-third of U.S. students use online education (“The 100 Best Online Colleges for 2017–18,” Aug. 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2vWW63j). Similarly, OnlineU.org ranks accounting programs’ top online certificate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, all of which are AACSB-accredited. Its top ten include well-known universities such as the University of South Dakota, Indiana State University, and Georgia Southern University—whose CPA exam pass rates have reached as high as 87% (“2015 To Online Colleges for Accounting Degrees,” http://bit.ly/2wQ7muN).
Facing cost pressures, and with prestigious universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and MIT joining the bandwagon, many graduates will join the profession with at least some online education. As accounting recruiters rely heavily on the traditional university, they should prepare for this new environment.
Online courses need not be less rigorous or result in lower student learning. The emphasis on quality will, however, vary widely.
Online Learning Benefits
The online learning environment provides many benefits. For example, online learners typically have more experience communicating through email or on a discussion board than traditional students, which could lead to improved business writing skills (Chin Choo Robinson and Hallett Hullinger, “New Benchmarks in Higher Education: Student Engagement in Online Learning,” Journal of Education for Business, November–December 2008, http://bit.ly/2hRJqo4). Online course software, such as Blackboard and Brightspace, allows all students to contribute to discussions, not just those who respond quickly, which can also enhance students’ critical thinking and communication skills (D. Randy Garrison and Heather Kanuka, “Blended Learning: Uncovering Its Transformative Potential in Higher Education,” The Internet and Higher Education, 2004, http://bit.ly/2vXMo00).
Online courses often give students the autonomy to effectively learn on their own, which will determine which students are more highly self-motivated (Robinson and Hullinger 2008). Online learners will also likely be more tech-savvy than their traditional counterparts, as they have navigated various software platforms and developed computer skills in completing their online courses. Programs also often have their top pedagogical and tech-savvy instructors conduct online courses. If conducted properly, online programs’ expansive reach can increase student opportunities to interact with people worldwide, expanding their experiences with different cultures and norms. Finally, the lower costs of online programs usually leave recent graduates with less student debt.
Online Learning Concerns
Some concerns about online learning include the rigor of the material, potential for cheating, attainment of soft and hard skills, and building of relationships among students, faculty, and professionals. Online degree graduates will compete for jobs and promotions against traditional degree graduates with, at least in perception, more rigorous programs. Online students lacking the requisite personal motivation may shirk their responsibilities and exert less effort than their traditional program peers. With pressure to grow enrollments and retention, some professors could reduce the workload and standards to meet student “demands,” regardless of the rigor that employers demand. In addition, faculty may be more inclined to “nurse” students to pass by assigning extra credit projects to bolster students’ grades. Also, depending on technologies implemented for test taking, faculty could allow open-book exams, potentially decreasing the amount of material students must learn and retain; these concerns are not unique to online education. Online courses need not be less rigorous or result in lower student learning, as evidenced by high CPA exam pass rates and success in the profession. The emphasis on quality will, however, vary widely between high- and low-quality programs.
While cheating is not unique to online programs, the lack of personal faculty interaction, the availability of exam banks, and reduced personal supervision for quizzes and exams increase the potential for student dishonesty. Some students can even hire others to complete their courses or entire degree programs (Brad Wolverton, “The New Cheating Economy,” The Chronicles of Higher Education, Aug. 28, 2016, http://bit.ly/2vMJlYJ). Recruiters should therefore delve deeper when examining students’ acquired knowledge and use interview questions to identify technically qualified students. Recruiters could also ask questions of faculty, with specific emphasis on how universities combat potential cheating, especially in programs with significant online content. Recruiters can also encourage faculty and schools to adopt emerging technologies that help reduce cheating by scanning assignments for plagiarism, monitoring students via webcam, and limiting their access to the Internet during tests.
Some recruiters have stressed that online learning usually works better for understanding technical accounting standards than for mastering soft skills. Online courses often use fewer group projects and fewer presentations than traditional courses, which means decreased opportunities to master critical “personal transferable skills” such as teamwork, presentation, and oral and written communication skills. These reduced opportunities may also reduce students’ experience with integrating many different cultures and skill sets and mastering computer skills through collaboration. As technology improves, however, these limitations may wane.
Depending on university support, online students could also have access to fewer structured career services—including assistance with resume writing and interviewing skills—and career placement than traditional campus-based students. Recruiters should therefore carefully assess online students’ abilities in these areas. Similarly, professors who do not meet individually with online students are less able to identify future leaders and those with “hidden talents.” Recruiters may need to offer more informal meeting sessions to better identify which students possess the soft skills necessary to achieve success. Firms may also need to increase early experiences for new hires to attain these necessary skills.
Finally, building relationships among online students, their classmates, and faculty is often different. The asynchronous nature of each completed task and lack of faculty interaction may impair students’ ability to develop meaningful, long-lasting professional relationships. Traditional university students often view their accounting professors as mentors, many of whom have public accounting experience to share with students to help guide them through the recruitment and employment processes. Traditional university professors also often have strong networks within public accounting and can help place top students in internships or full-time positions. In the authors’ experience, the lack of personal interaction in an online course and the geographic dispersion of online students can impair the faculty’s ability to use these connections to assist students. Recruiters must therefore seek out other paths for identifying top students in these programs.
Brace for Change
The benefits of online learning have led to its rapid growth, which will likely continue. Concerns have arisen regarding the course integrity of online learning and students’ attainment of technical and soft skills. Changes in students’ interaction with faculty may also directly affect CPA firms’ current recruiting methods, which often rely heavily on faculty input. Online learners, however, may have both stronger written communication and problem-solving skills, be highly self-motivated, be comfortable with technology, and may carry less student debt, which will change overall accounting education and CPA firm recruiting techniques. These changes may also enable CPA firms to recruit at a more national or global level, which will require a fresh look at program quality. Firm recruiters should more closely evaluate students’ soft skills, such as teamwork and presentation skills, and possibly expand in-house training and experiences for their new hires in these areas. Now is the time for CPA firms to adapt their recruiting, hiring, and training processes to prepare for these changes in the educational environment.
Key Suggestions for Recruiters
Evaluate Specific Online Programs
Employers should educate themselves on online education’s many facets, build their experience, and evaluate online programs. While a high correlation usually exists between a school’s traditional program and its online course reputation, recruiters should also consider new programs. Evaluating coursework and curriculum and using objective measures like CPA exam pass rates and prior experience may lead to discovery of higher quality students in overlooked places.
Redesign Recruitment Efforts
Many CPA firms have amassed large on-campus presences by holding meet-and-greet events, skill-building workshops, and on-campus interviews to help select students for further recruiting efforts, but they will need to alter this process for online programs. Firms identifying strong online students may need to allow students to join offices local to their residences rather than local to the university. Firms should also use more phone or Skype interviews in lieu of campus interviews to select candidates for further consideration; larger firms can rely on their global alliances for interviewing international online students. In addition, they should consider virtual meetings and expanding their geographic network. Evaluating fit and chemistry may also require further effort.
Given online education’s reduced soft-skill training, recruiters should carefully assess candidates’ non-technical skills. Accounting firms should recognize that such candidates are generally older and more mature, and often work while taking online courses. They might also consider group activities and presentations as part of the interview process to formally evaluate teamwork and communication skills.
The authors wish to thank Barbara Apostolou, Dave Dupree, John Fleming, Jerry Hepp, Melvin Houston, Tom Weirich, and Brian Leonard for their help with this manuscript.