Gareth Olivier, founder of CA Connect, speaks about what the tertiary providers of the future will look like and how they can remain relevant.
While COVID-19 has forced countless companies and institutions to scramble their way online, last year CA Connect (through Milpark Education), drawing on a decade of experience in flexible accounting education, had already established itself as the first and only SAICA-accredited online path to CA(SA).
As part of its ‘Future of Education’ series, Gareth Olivier spoke to SAICA about what moving from contact to online education looks like in the hope of sharing insight into how other universities and tertiary providers can follow suit.
As the only online programme for prospective chartered accountants (CAs(SA)), CA Connect has been impressed with the number and demographics of the students it has received since it launched a year ago. The programme already has around 1 000 students doing various courses, 70% of whom are black. For Olivier, this is incredibly encouraging, as he feels the need and thus the potential is massive.
‘What’s great about an online course is that it provides huge flexibility, so working students can attend, as can students who live in rural areas and wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend a central campus,’ explains Olivier. ‘It also provides the educational support, guidance and rigour usually only associated with campus-based programmes.’
Facing the challenges
When the CA Connect team began the process over 10 years ago moving from contact education into online learning, they knew they could not lose the interactive, ‘living’ element of education that comes from being in a classroom with other people. ‘Education is not just something you read in a book, and for us it was essential that we maintain that,’ says Olivier.
The project seemed immense, but Olivier stresses that one of the most important things they did was to build the course in stages.
‘Embarking on a huge transition can seem intimidating, but if you look at it incrementally, you’ll see that once you make that initial leap, the next steps come more easily,’ he assures.
Olivier does not deny that they were faced with a number of educational tensions during the transition. The first one was content syllabus overload, and the second was that, ironically, CAs(SA) may not necessarily be the best people to teach their online courses.
After examining a number of academic CAs(SA) in practice, they saw that many of them delivered content for the sake of content and showed linear ways of looking at problems. ‘This wasn’t ideal, as thinking categories such as problem-solving, collaboration and creativity are so important.’
What’s more, Olivier and his team realised that academic CAs(SA) assumed that being industry experts made them capable of delivering education. ‘This is not necessarily the case, as they are two separate areas of expertise.’
While these tensions around content proved a challenge, there was also another tension – that of community. ‘We were worried that without contact, the students wouldn’t be able to forge relationships with fellow students as well as lecturers and that they would feel alone,’ says Olivier, adding that this would not be an acceptable outcome.
Adapting to the online environment
With the above in mind, the CA Connect team approached their online curriculum from two directions. The first was how to tackle the content issue, and they took 18 months to develop the programme as it stands today.
‘CA education is currently heavily developed on content, so for us, the delivery thereof would need to be very innovative,’ says Oliver. ‘In a classroom you have three- to four-hour lectures, but that can’t translate to an online environment.’ As such, they needed to come up with a formal, guided structure that was both snappy and chunked and that would keep students thinking. ‘We do things like show a five-minute video, followed by an exercise, followed by exploring, say, a website, and then returning to another video. This way, students can’t just zone out and are encouraged to continually think actively,’ says Olivier.
After 18 months, they had a complete course that could literally deliver itself. ‘We could have just stopped there, and allowed students to press play and absorb the content, but that didn’t address the second part of our goal, which was to create a community and allow the content to come alive.’
As such, every day and on every subject, there are conversation rooms where students get together and have discussions. ‘These really help to create a sense of togetherness,; says Olivier.
One of the real advantages of online learning is that the content creates a huge data footprint for every student, and as an institution you can see how students are behaving and which behaviours lead to success and failure.
‘As lecturers, we very quickly realised we had the ability to intervene proactively,’ says Olivier. As a simple example, if a student has not been online for a week you can call them up and ask why, but Olivier adds that you can get much more granular than that. ‘If a student has watched the same video 20 times, or you see they keep rewinding and replaying, you can contact them and ask them what they are finding challenging about that particular piece of information.’
CA Connect quickly noticed that their interventions were leading to improved motivation, lower drop-out rates and greater momentum in the community. ‘In essence, we got to the point where we knew students had issues before they did, and the results and our potential to intervene proactively and assist were fascinating,’ says Olivier.
Reimagining the accounting department
CA Connect knew from the outset that academic CAs(SA) may not be the best people to teach their courses. ‘The content is done, we have a course that theoretically delivers itself, so what’s important for us is to find people who can support it.’
As such, the institution prefers to appoint CAs(SA) who genuinely want to take the students on a journey rather than those who see themselves as authorities. ‘In essence, we hire great people who happen to be CAs(SA), and they aren’t necessarily academics.’
This different way of looking at educators helped the institution to see that being CAs(SA) alone wouldn’t be enough, and they began to change the composition of their staff. ‘We need data analysts who can support our students by knowing when to intervene and how to segregate the classes according to behaviour patterns, location and abilities,’ explains Olivier.
They also realised they needed clinical, behavioural and educational psychologists who could understand a student’s journey and their way of learning.
‘This is just the starting point; there are many more skills that we need, but what’s most important to us is that all the people we bring into the department work together,’ says Olivier. The institution believes that through mixing intertwined skills on a daily basis where CAs(SA), psychologists, data analysts and other experts work on the fringe of each other’s skills, they will be able to understand the needs of their students and how to help them succeed. ‘If we continue to work in silos, it will be very difficult to make a meaningful change,’ says Olivier.
Olivier acknowledges that red tape is stifling innovation in many universities, and he believes this is the reason that a small institution such as his was the first to go online. He also points out that private institutions have a lot more incentive to make changes and that at public institutions, lecturers do not often feel the need to change on a macro level.
‘There needs to be a willingness to adapt, and innovation should be the driving force rather than circumstance.’