What faculty should know about Alteryx

Don't be afraid of teaching this easy-to-learn data analysis software.
By Cheryl Meyer

One data analytics program gaining steam in accounting academic circles is Alteryx, a tool focused heavily on sophisticated statistical analysis. Though data analytics can be accomplished with numerous programs, including Tableau, PowerBI, and others, Alteryx is joining them as an emerging technology taught in many accounting classrooms.

According to Julie Chassagne, vice president and corporate controller at Alteryx Inc., in Irvine, Calif., Alteryx is already widely used by public accounting, investment banking, and financial services firms, and approximately 7,000 companies worldwide are using the technology.

The strength of Alteryx lies in its ability to analyze messier datasets, while Tableau and PowerBI "are much easier to use if what you're trying to do is make compelling visuals," noted Gia Chevis, Ph.D., director of innovation in accounting data & analytics at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

Chevis, Chassagne, and Richard Walstra, CPA (inactive), DBA, assistant professor of accounting at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., offer the following tips for learning and teaching Alteryx and other new types of software:

Don't be afraid of new technologies. As an educator, plan on learning just the basic functions of any new piece of software to start, so that you have a reasonable understanding of it, Chevis advised. You don't need to be an expert "to help your students learn it and improve their skills," she said. If problems arise when using new software, you can work with the students to help troubleshoot the issue, which is an edifying experience for everyone, she said.

What's more, noted Chassagne, it “doesn't require knowledge of coding or programming."

In addition, students don't expect accounting professors to know all the bells and whistles of any software program. "It's OK for students to see that we're learning this along with them," said Walstra, who teaches an undergraduate AIS course. "And recognize that there are communities out there, whether for Tableau or Alteryx or other technologies, where you can ask questions and find answers."

Team up. While you shouldn't be afraid to learn new software on your own, consider studying it with a colleague, Chevis said. This will make learning more enjoyable and effective, and can provide some support if you get stuck and need to troubleshoot.

Don’t devote too much in-class time to teaching software.  "Faculty have to be careful to not overload students with too much work in aggregate for the class," Chevis advised. "You can't just add [software] on to an already overpacked schedule."

Professors may want to reduce the number of homework assignments they give in total to give students more time to incorporate new technologies, and to ask students to learn new software on their own (with some guidance) as a course requirement. She advocates framing it to students in a way that makes sense, by telling them what the objective is, what help you will offer, and why it’s important for their professional development to use online resources to learn new technologies on their own.

When students are familiar with the software, have them use it to complete assignments. "Pick a case study where [students] are doing data and analytics and do it in Alteryx instead," Chevis suggested.

Start small. Don't think you have to tackle big projects all at once when using Alteryx or other data analysis software. Instead, sort and filter some data, and give students "a bit of a win" by helping them get their first data analysis experience, Walstra said.

"The best way to incorporate Alteryx in any accounting class is simply to start small, to scaffold the learning" he noted. "Always that first step is the difficult one, for students and faculty."

Make it relevant, competitive, and fun. Create your own challenges. Choose a specific workflow that appeals to students, split up the class in groups, and "see which group comes up with the most creative workflow, or workflow with the fewest steps," Chassagne advised.

In addition, students usually love guest speakers, so consider bringing in alumni or accounting and finance practitioners — either in person or via Zoom— to speak with students about their use of data analytics programs. "When the students can hear the message of Alteryx's importance from the profession and not just faculty, there's usually greater buy-in," Chevis said.

Faculty and students can use Alteryx for free for one year using a free Alteryx Designer license to get started. Tableau offers free licenses to educators. Read more about teaching data analytics and how faculty can learn emerging technologies.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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