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Modern Accountancy Training: Technology and the Science of Learning

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It’s hard to imagine, but back at the turn of the century, many financial institutions were gripped by the fear that as the clock struck midnight, the so-called ”millennium bug” would reap its toll. It was predicted to affect not only financial systems, but everything from home computers to power stations and military installations.

We survived of course, but this was one of the first signs as to how dependant we had become on technology. Not so in the world of accountancy training: overhead projectors were very much in use, and in some institutions the blackboard remained a stark reminder that little had changed.

There’s nothing wrong with traditional methods. After all, good teaching has little to do with technology. But technology did offer an opportunity to capture data and metrics that could help give a unique insight into what was driving student success. It could also provide more flexible and convenient delivery channels.

The consolidation of the accounting market by Kaplan in 2003, created sufficient scale to make longer term investment attractive. In addition, it opened up what was a relatively niche area of education to greater scrutiny from learning experts and colleagues in the US, who were delivering training in a whole variety of different domains to that of finance and accountancy.

This scale of investment and new areas of expertise would bring about some of the biggest changes the accounting education sector had seen.

Technology, teaching and online courses

One of the first tangible changes was the introduction of technology into the classroom. In 2005 the overhead projector was replaced by write on tablets and interactive whiteboards. A small change on one level, but with access to the internet tutors were able to bring real world and real time events into the classroom.

At this time, there were still only two main ways that students could study, in class or distance learning, the latter being the method of learning that had started it all way back in 1884. But the investment in technology was having as much impact outside the classroom as inside. It was now possible to provide students with electronic content, and in 2007, the first online courses began to emerge.

Kaplan in the UK began to invest in a new area called ‘Instructional Design’. Instructional designers did not have to be qualified accountants or teachers, they were experts in constructing instructional experiences online to help students learn more efficiently. It would take several years for the role of the instructional designer to become embedded within the company, but the seed was set.

By 2013, the range of online content had become such that it needed to be far better organised, and students were asking for a faster and more accessible online experience. This change in student consumption was not unexpected. The iPhone was launched in 2007, followed by the iPad in 2010, and meant that easy-to-use interactive devices quickly became a familiar site in classrooms. By 2013 the iPad was already 3 years old. Although learning management systems had been used by Kaplan to host materials for some time, there was a need for more of an online learning environment rather than just a portal to store information. As a result, MyKaplan was launched.

This change towards the use of new technologies and methods of delivery was not as smooth a transition as it might seem. There was much debate as to which was best: was it the classroom or online? There was little doubt that online was more convenient and flexible, but others would describe it as dull and not capable of holding the student’s attention for long periods of time.

One hybrid solution was to create a course that used both, and 2013 saw the launch of blended courses and flipped classrooms. ‘Flipping’ was a technique borrowed from the state system where teachers used pre-recorded online content to introduce the subject and explain the principles. The teacher would then build on what had been learned by answering student’s questions in class and exploring new ideas by enquiry.

A changing world and the science of learning

Another big change resulting from the consolidation in 2003, was that a far greater emphasis was being placed on understanding the process and nature of learning. Events that would take place in the next few years would have significant impact on what accountants needed to learn and the speed in which they needed to learn it.

By 2003, the knowledge economy was in full swing. Technology had created an explosion in data and the accountant’s role was changing. Much of the processes used to record transactions had been removed. Computers were excellent at double entry bookkeeping!

Back in 2001 however, another development that rocked the finance world was beginning to have an impact on what accountants should know and how they should behave. A company that was praised for its growth, ambitious projects and had been named "America's Most Innovative Company" six times was declared bankrupt. On the 2nd of December 2001, Enron filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. It's demise not only highlighted questionable accounting practices, but asked fundamental questions as to the ethical judgement of accountants. One final chapter to the Enron story was the fall from grace of Arthur Anderson, one of the “big five” who as auditors to Enron were already in a difficult position, but the discovery that they had shredded vital documents sealed their fate.

The professional bodies responded with new subjects and embedded ethics into much of the curriculum. These changes were supported by an increase in governance, additional regulation and an emphasis on the importance of risk management. Arguably just in time, as the financial crises of 2008 was just around the corner.

This all happened in a relatively short period of time. The student of course had to keep pace with all these changes. Fortunately, a new discipline that used a combination of neuroscience cognitive psychology and educational best practices had begun to mature.

‘Learning science’ was in the public domain, and Kaplan sought to harness its power to help solve the conundrum of how to train and educate people better, and faster. Science played such an important part in many other disciplines: medicine, engineering, manufacturing and even sport. Education, however, had remained relatively untouched by the scientific process.

As with technology, the exploration into improving learning is ongoing, but taking an evidenced based approach, increasingly informs what Kaplan does in order to continually improve the courses on offer, and the ways in which learning is consumed.

Changes in assessment and greater flexibility 

Looking back on the period from 2003 to 2013, what happened next may seem trivial, but to the providers of Accountancy training the requirement for students to sit their exams online and when they chose i.e. on-demand, would prove challenging.

Both the industry and the profession had long wanted a more flexible system for students sitting exams, one that was more convenient and able to better fit with the business. The response from the professional bodies was to begin to offer more examinations online. Kaplan like many of its competitors already had flexible courses (distance learning), but for some this would never be their preferred study method.

It was time again for Kaplan to invest, this time in a brand-new delivery channel, the OnDemand course. In many ways, it is a great example of what has changed since the Financial Training Company was acquired by Kaplan in 2003. It uses relatively small chunks of video that not only appeal to the YouTube generation, but have been proven to provide the student with the optimum learning experience. The video was embedded in self managed instructionally designed course programmes that drew on expertise first brought into the company in 2007. The OnDemand course took time to develop, and was eventually launched in 2016.

The speed of change in Accountancy training has certainly accelerated, but perhaps that is to be expected as learning has to keep pace with what is happening in the Accountancy profession, and the wider business community. The ways in which students can learn are certainly more varied and flexible today: we are far better informed as to how the brain works, and learning science continues to reveal new and improved ways in which we can teach and deliver content.

However, there is always a trade-off when introducing new technology. Going from study to exams is that much faster, and students would almost certainly argue that pressures are greater. So, perhaps there will always be a part of every student who would rather go back in time, to the classrooms at Caer Rhun hall, being regaled by stories of motor cars and the wealth of opportunities a career in finance can bring.

Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial, has been involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years. He is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.