The COVID-19 pandemic has provided plenty of challenges and opportunities for professional accountancy organizations (PAOs) in our approach to operational activities. A key purpose we serve is assessing future professional accountants. The accountancy education cycle is important in ensuring that PAOs deliver an adequate pipeline of competent professional accountants to the workplace. As the bodies responsible for administering the entry examination, PAOs fulfill a key public interest need.
We are the Mongolian Institute of Certified Public Accountants (MonICPA), the PAO responsible for administering the CPA examination in Mongolia. Prior to COVID-19, the examination was administered in person. However, the pandemic compelled us to rapidly change our approach to supporting our students and avoid interrupting the flow of new entrants to the profession.
After the World Health Organization issued a statement about human-to-human transmission related to the coronavirus, the Government of Mongolia took immediate action and in late January 2020 closed its borders, extended school holidays, and suggested strict adherence to mask wearing and regular sanitization.
As a result, many businesses and other entities had to suspend activities and reduce in-office hours. This led MonICPA to accelerate its digital transformation, including CPA examinations, which—before the pandemic—was a lower priority due to the size of the investment required and people’s preference for in-person learning and development, including examinations.
Preparing for and Testing Online Examinations
Prior to the pandemic, MonICPA offered the CPA examination twice a year with students travelling to 21 examination centers located across different provinces in Mongolia, plus Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, where the MonICPA headquarters are located. Our pre-pandemic plan for 2020 was to organize online examinations for two provinces with the support of the Ministry of Finance. Our infrastructure and software were built to test the online examinations with a limited number of 50–60 students. When the Government extended the emergency situation beyond March, we had to decide whether to postpone our CPA examination or expand our initial capacity for online examinations by almost ten times and offer the exam across the country. We chose the latter which was held online in June 2020.
Hosting online examinations for the first time is a daunting task for both the examiner and examinee. MonICPA researched the approaches of other PAOs, such as CPA Australia, to obtain a better understanding of potential logistical challenges and administration hurdles. We also acknowledge that students might not be technologically savvy and that it is our responsibility to familiarize them with the technology and the processes required to execute this challenging initiative.
We conducted six preparatory sessions, each consisting of two to four different examinations for over 300 students to test the online conference platform and examination administration software. Each test revealed new challenges, including sufficiency of internet speed, means of communication between examiner and examinee, and compliance with regulations. We engaged around 50 examination proctors and provided them with proper training and guidelines. Being well-trained, these proctors were instrumental in overcoming challenges such as hardware problems and connectivity issues.
Conducting Online Examinations
During the examinations, MonICPA connected to two additional internet service providers to accommodate 500 examinees connecting simultaneously to the online conference platform.We used an online conference platform—Jitsi Meet offered by Jitsi free-of-charge for community use—to host five online examinations for around 500 examinees per examination, with approximately ten examinees to one proctor. The platform allows examinees to share their screen and webcam, enabling proctors to monitor the examinees’ progress on the examination administration system we developed for this purpose. The proctors we trained were hosted in three lecture halls, observing social distance. In addition, one administrative proctor and two MonICPA Examination Committee members were allocated to each lecture hall. The administrative proctor had a direct access to exam program; thus, he was able to monitor all students when they start and/or finish exams, and send notifications to them. The proctors were even capable of terminating an exam before time with an approval from an Examination Committee member. The two Examination Committee members allocated were responsible for supervising the proctors as well as monitoring overall exam progress.
Was it challenging? Yes! But it also led to a higher number of examinees and presented cost-savings in terms of printing, travelling, and marketing, as well as time savings. Students did not need to travel and were more comfortable taking the examination from the comfort of their home, reducing their stress.
We learned that the main contributors to a successful online examination are a highly encrypted online conference platform and examination administration software, stable and reliable internet connection, and well-trained proctors.
We also learned that data security is important given the exchange of information, and the reliance on technology to save this information and protect people’s privacy without compromise.
There were appeals by some students who felt that technology may have affected their performance and we acknowledge that taking an online examination for the first time can be challenging for some. After each exam, we connected with all the students who appealed and re-explained the exam procedure and guidance that MonICPA developed and circulated prior to the exam. Some appealers wanted their exam result reviewed, so we called them to review their exam result in presence of the MonICPA Exam Committee. After dealing all the appeals, the Examination Committee proposed to charge a fee for appealing process next time, which is currently free of charge.
Digital transformation is inevitable in today’s fast changing and highly uncertain world. COVID-19 did not cause MonICPA to pause; we embraced the disruption and used it as an opportunity to accelerate our digital transformation. Our plan is to continue to develop our online examination platform, strengthen our infrastructure, and identify an optimum solution to proctoring.