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Digital evolution: how the ACA is changing this year

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 07 Jan 2021

Digital evolution

Some exciting developments are coming in 2021. Shaun Robertson, Director, Education and Qualifications, and Adam Birt, Head of Qualifications, Strategy and Development, talk us through them

The ACA is constantly evolving. Each year, the syllabus is reviewed and revised to ensure it remains relevant, flexible and fit for purpose, arming students with the knowledge and skills they need for their future.

“It’s about keeping things moving and doing the right thing for people’s careers,” says Shaun Robertson, Director, Education and Qualifications at ICAEW. “The key thing is being reflective of what’s happening in the workplace, as well as in society and technology, and always keeping up to date, so that students are ready for their work as much as possible.”

For 2021, one of the most exciting developments is new exam software. Over the past five years, the focus has been on migrating all 15 exams onto computer safely and securely. Now, with that in place, it’s about harnessing the potential of new technology, and making the exams as close to the real-world work experience as possible.

“We chose the previous platform five years ago, and exam technology then was in a far different place to where it is now,” explains Adam Birt, Head of Qualifications, Strategy and Development at ICAEW. “We were very much constrained by what we could do with that platform, whereas the new one is much more flexible, and therefore should be much more intuitive. We’ve been testing it all the way along, and we’ve been able to incorporate students’ feedback into its design.”

Playing to technology’s strengths

From March onwards, data analytics software will be built into certain Professional and Advanced Level exams, enabling students to explore and interrogate ‘real’ client data for their answers, and so demonstrate their analytical and interpretive skills.

“Data analysis has always been one of the key aspects of what chartered accountants do,” says Birt, “but what we’re doing now is providing students with the tools in the exam that they would otherwise be using in the workplace. In doing so, we can further train and assess them on exercising skills like professional scepticism. In addition to having to manipulate the data, they’ve also to question the origins of that data and be able to tell their client – or in this case the examiner – the story of what that data is telling them. So it broadens that whole skillset, and brings it much more up to date within the exam framework.”

Alongside the new data analytics software, word processing and spreadsheet software and tools such as a spell checker, calculator, notepad and highlighter all build up into a fully functional and user-friendly digital exam environment. Many students will of course already be using similar packages at work, and practice software has been made available to enable them to become comfortable and confident using it.

“The whole experience is much closer now to what students will be facing in the workplace – as well as what they’ve already been doing as part of their earlier education,” says Robertson. “We’re trying to make things as intuitive as possible: it should be a case of, ‘I recognise that, that feels a bit like my standard package; I press that button and I get this…’ That’s important because it allows students then to focus on demonstrating the higher skills of analysis, interpretation, drawing conclusions and making recommendations. The technology’s an enabler.”

Improved flexibility and accessibility

Another technological advance that many students may already be familiar with from further education is digital textbooks – all ACA and ICAEW CFAB Learning Materials for 2021 exams are now published digitally. As well as being better for the environment – saving 262 tonnes of paper each year – the ICAEW Bookshelf is more convenient and accessible for students, with the study manual, study guide, syllabus, and skills and technical knowledge grids all within one workbook that, together with the question bank, can be accessed anywhere from any device.

Highlighting text, making notes and quickly searching for words and phrases is easy and intuitive, and you can adjust settings such as text size and background colour to suit your needs, as well as choosing a read-aloud ‘text to speech’ option. During open-book exams, you will be able to access your Learning Materials, notes and highlights using the ICAEW Bookshelf. Clean, unannotated copies of permitted texts can be accessed within other exams.

“There were lots of reasons for us to go digital,” says Robertson. “The key thing for students is that the exam is digital, so if you’re practising questions ready for the exam, you should be using the Learning Materials from a digital platform. It’s reflective of the workplace too: most information now is accessed online.

“The content is exactly the same quality, but it allows much more accessibility for a wide spectrum of people to access the learning materials, and it allows much more flexibility because it’s synchronous across all devices.”

A continual evolution

Another major development that 2020 has brought, perhaps a little earlier than planned, is the remote invigilation of exams. While this was something the ICAEW team had been exploring, the Coronavirus pandemic accelerated its delivery. “From 2021 onwards, remote delivery will be part and parcel rather than an add-on,” says Birt. “Students will be able to choose whether they sit exams within the exam centre or from a personal location such as home. We’ve provided that successfully this year, and we’ve had approval from the Financial Reporting Council that we can continue to do so with the new exam software.”

The new exam platform, data analytics software and digital Learning Materials have been some two-and-a-half years in the planning, a meticulous process involving regular consultation with students, employers and training providers, as well as testing and live pilots, the most recent of which took place during the December exam sessions. So far, the feedback from the hundreds of students who have trialled the new exam software has been broadly positive. Employers and training providers are supportive, too.

“Against a backdrop of COVID-19, students have had to show an incredible amount of agility when it comes to completing their studies and working remotely, in many cases sitting ICAEW exams in a non-traditional format too,” says Issy Homan, Head of Learning & Knowledge at KPMG UK. “While embracing digital technology is nothing new, the pandemic has placed more emphasis on its use, whether it be further use of electronic materials for a qualification or for day-to-day work. 

“ICAEW’s decision to switch to digital materials is a very natural step – not only sensible from a sustainability perspective, but it increases the ability to make changes to course content in a profession that is constantly evolving and adapting itself. Agility is embedded in KPMG’s talent and we know that our trainees will quickly pick up and use the new online resources to underpin their future success.”

Andy Fitzsimmons, ACA Commercial Manager at Kaplan Financial, agrees. “As the accountancy profession continues to evolve, it is great to see ICAEW leading the way with the changes they’re making to the delivery of the ACA qualification,” he says. “The introduction of new exam software, the incorporation of data analytics and the use of digital Learning Materials are good examples of the many ways that the ACA qualification is advancing. This ongoing evolution ensures that the qualification continues to meet the needs of the profession in developing vocationally adept accountants equipped with the skillset to deliver value for their clients.”

Continuous communication and consultation with key stakeholders plays a large part in the ongoing development of the ACA. “We have to draw the line once a year so that we can do the learning materials and write the exams,” says Robertson, “but we spend six months of the year actively searching as many opinions as possible, then sit down and try to square it all.”

Raising the profile of ethics

Following the Future ACA consultation in 2019, technology, along with sustainability and ethics, are the three key themes shaping the qualification over the coming years. This is reflected in both last year’s and this year’s syllabus update.

“We’ve got the new exam platform now, which is going to allow us to assess students’ ability to manipulate a spreadsheet and utilise the functionality within it to show visualisations of data or undertake financial or statistical calculations,” says Birt. “The syllabus is reflecting that, so we’re introducing more around data visualisation, and reintroducing elements of statistical awareness. Not that we want students to be expert statisticians, but we want them to be able to use statistics to help verify the validity of the data. So that’s the line the syllabus is going down: utilising the technology and the functionality within the technology.”

Awareness and knowledge of technology continue to be embedded in the syllabus content, as do sustainability – which Birt believes is going to be a huge influence on the structure and content of the ACA over the next five years – and ethics. He says the new Ethics Learning Programme, which has been in place since October 2020, reflects this importance.

“The original programme that was launched six or seven years ago was very much focused on the Code of Ethics, and set a benchmark for the increasing number of members coming from all around the globe,” he says. “In this iteration we have looked much more broadly at why ethics is important to the profession, and how the introduction of technology has changed some of the ethical considerations. It really gets students to think on a broader basis about why ethics is important, and why they should be acting in the way they are.”

“That’s not to say the qualification has vastly increased its focus on ethics, it hasn’t – it’s always been there,” he adds. “We’ve just raised the profile of it and reminded people that being a professional is all about being ethical.”

Upskilling for the future

In a world of rapid technological, environmental and societal change, the professional skills that chartered accountants offer – ethics, professional scepticism, analysis and interpretation, communication, resilience – are increasingly important.

“The fundamental knowledge that accountants need will always be there, that’s not going to change,” says Robertson. “But a lot of the more transient knowledge, like a new standard, can be looked up online – the question is, do you actually know how to use it? I don’t need you to recite word for word what an IFRS says; but do you know what it means? Do you know the implications? That’s going to be the shift in the next few years.”

He uses the analogy of a doctor: having a huge amount of technical knowledge, but being able to distil it down into essential, easily understandable advice for the patient – or, in this case, the client. “It’s that kind of skill you need for financial people as well,” he says. “And it will be different for each individual to make sure that the actual message is communicated in the most effective way.”

Building these skills in the professionals of the future is central to the ACA – and assessing them effectively is key to the new exam software. “This exam is now cutting edge,” says Robertson. “We believe it’s one of the best in the world: bringing all the professional skills together and having a platform where students can demonstrate that professionalism, as opposed to just what they’ve learned in a book.

“We’ve got a duty of care to our students, and the public at large. We should be making sure they’ve got the skills they need to do the job properly. This is the start of a journey and our focus for the coming years: continuing to develop the ACA and making a good, robust accountant ready for the future.”

To find out more, watch our videos on the new exam software here, digital learning materials here and Ethics Learning Programme here.