Lessons from the Transition to Online Education

Lessons from the Transition to Online Education

by Valerie Trott Williams, CPA, CIA, CFE, and Robert J. Kollar, CPA, CGMA | Sep 01, 2020

In mid-March 2020, colleges and universities in Pennsylvania decided to stop traditional classroom teaching and switch to online delivery for the conclusion of the spring semester. As educators devised their plans, many attempted to make the experience similar to a classroom setting by meeting at regularly scheduled times using Zoom sessions.

As measured by several factors, the overall learning performance of the students in 2020 was surprisingly higher when compared with prior years of traditional instruction. This occurred among accounting majors in auditing courses as well as among business majors in managerial accounting courses. What follows are the factors we used to determine the impact of our switch.

Senior Capstone Auditing Course

Surgent CPA Exam review tool – A simulated auditing section of the CPA Exam using Surgent CPA Review material is integrated into this course. Each semester, the auditing students’ baseline auditing knowledge is assessed at the beginning of the semester. For the past four years, including the results of 2020, the baseline has been similar (34% to 39%). At the end of the semester, the simulated CPA Exam is administered again to assess learning. The 2020 post-exam average of 63% (56% in 2019) is the highest score achieved in the past four years, and 10 students achieved greater than 75% (a passing score for the CPA Exam) – the highest number over the past four years.

Analysis of overall letter grades for the entire auditing course – There were more A’s earned in 2020 than in prior years. The course requirements were not altered between years.

Analytical comparison – An analysis was done for 2020 to determine how students performed during the first eight weeks when live instruction was completed compared to the virtual six weeks. Virtual class performance was higher than the live instruction for both of us (89% Williams; 81.5% Kollar). There were no significant changes made to the course content regardless of delivery method. Required components were still met by students, and exams given with live instruction were the same as virtual. The only change was the method of delivery.

Views of recorded Zoom sessions – The virtual sessions were primarily conducted live via Zoom during scheduled class times, but they were also recorded. This allowed students to review material again on demand. Attendance at the Zoom sessions was high, typically 95% or greater. In a traditional teaching environment, students do not have an opportunity to review live instruction again. The greatest number of reviewed sessions were the final review session and a guest speaker in which the students were required to write a paper to summarize key aspects of the presentation.

The number of students who requested to have their letter grade converted to Pass or Not Pass – Our university (Duquesne) published a temporary grading policy for this unique semester indicating that professors should continue to evaluate students in the traditional manner and submit a final earned letter grade. After the students review their grade and consider their specific circumstances (difficulty with technology, learning in an online environment, inadequate support system, etc.), the student can elect to replace their letter grade with a P (pass) or NP (not pass). Very few students requested to change the earned grade to P/NP.

Evaluation surveys in 2020 vs. prior years – In 2020, students thought they received high value. This is consistent with prior in-classroom teaching.

Managerial Accounting Classes

The evaluation of this past semester was also extended to the managerial accounting course, a requirement for all business majors. This course is usually taken at the sophomore level; the auditing capstone course discussed previously is traditionally taken by seniors majoring in accounting.

The managerial accounting students also had improved scores during the virtual environment versus the live instruction, and overall final grades were higher than in prior years.

This suggests that other majors and younger students were also able to effectively learn in a six-week virtual environment as their results were similar to the senior-level auditing students.


There are, of course, other factors to consider, including professor’s level of effort, university support, and academic integrity to name a few. For example, we spent significant hours to ensure a smooth transition to a virtual environment – about 60% additional time was required when compared to a traditional live class. This was due to several factors:

  • The number of students in a virtual environment (137 Williams; 119 Kollar)
  • The need to create assessments and examinations in an online testing tool
  • Online grading
  • Troubleshooting technical issues for the instructors and students
  • Availability to students outside traditional scheduled office hours
  • Access to an accounting tutor who was also able to conduct tutoring via online tools

Also, past experiences with online teaching were likely a beneficial factor. Both of us had taught online courses for the past four years and had experience with some of the technology prior to the forced virtual environment for all classes.
Another factor to consider is engagement between faculty and the university’s information technology services to obtain support regarding various platforms for delivery. Universities that dedicate resources in this area will be better able to serve faculty and students in an online learning environment.

Academic integrity is a significant concern in the online environment. It was reinforced using several methods:

  • University honor code reminders
  • Instructions embedded in the online exams
  • Lockdown browser and camera monitor tools
  • Timed exams during specified times
  • Randomized questions
  • Algorithmic questions

Online teaching opens opportunities for students to use resources they may not have access to in a live classroom. Even though the above were used to enforce individual student work, performance in a virtual environment may be influenced by uncontrolled student access to other information during examinations.

The six weeks of virtual education was challenging for faculty, students, and the administration. But there were positives from the experience, including the high participation rates of students in regularly scheduled Zoom sessions, their review of recorded sessions, and a high level of learning as evidenced by final class grades.

Planning for future online instruction is critical to success. The lessons learned during this unusual time can be used to further enhance both traditional and online learning in the future.

Valerie Trott Williams, CPA, CIA, CFE, and Robert J. Kollar, CPA, CGMA, are associate professors of practice – accounting at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. They can be reached at trott@duq.edu and kollar@duq.edu, respectively.

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