Help students embrace emerging technologies

Educators and practitioners play an important role in helping students succeed in the evolving profession.
By Madeline Trimble, Ph.D.

Blockchain, robotic process automation, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cybersecurity, the internet of things, cryptocurrencies — according to the news media, any one of these buzzwords could be a disruption to the current model of accounting. Most of us have seen the alarming study detailed in The Economist that states that there is a 94% probability accountants and auditors will suffer job losses due to computerization.

This emphasis on the negative has made some students apprehensive regarding the future marketability of their traditional accounting degrees. I have noticed many talented students contemplating switching to seemingly more resilient majors, such as business information systems, to increase their chances of getting a job once they graduate.

Students have undoubtedly heard the negative aspects of these innovations, but their benefits are often overlooked. Advice from educators and practitioners can go a long way toward motivating students to embrace and prioritize technology skills, and even become excited about the changing environment of accounting. Here are some ways to send them the right message:

Integrate tech topics into the classroom. The best way to combat fear of the unknown is with knowledge and awareness. Break down technological topics by simply having a discussion on what emerging technologies actually entail and how they can benefit the business environment. Assign papers, presentations, and debates on technological topics to allow students to address the issues and to form and share their opinions. When possible, include real-world data in class problems and present the solution using data processing programs (e.g., show how Visual Basic for Applications macros can automate certain functions, or use SAP or Tableau to present data visually). Stress the fact that learning a specific program is not as important as knowing the underlying data analysis concepts.

Assess students’ aptitude. Encourage students to test their knowledge and understanding of the upcoming changes with this helpful quiz from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. These questions can be great starting points for class discussions. Interactive guides such as this one from the Financial Times can help students understand what areas of accounting are at risk and which areas will see a greater emphasis in the future.

Reframe students’ outlook. Encourage students to be curious, and even excited, about this reinvention of accounting. Some points that I have found helpful to make include:

  • Disruptive technology will affect all industries to some extent, so this is not something that can be ignored, avoided, or delayed.
  • While the technology revolution may eliminate some components of traditional accounting, it very well may create new, more exciting jobs in the field. Many of the tasks that robots or automation will replace will be monotonous data collection and input work. Interpreting and communicating the outputs of accounting will still need to be done by an accounting professional. Even in today’s world, hybrid models where human advisers are combined with robotic tools are still greatly preferred. This finding suggests that accountants will have a new, complementary role alongside technology.
  • Generation Z students have grown up with technology and are well-positioned to take on the challenge of automation and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, it’s better that they are experiencing this evolution early in their careers, when they have more time and ability to adapt to it.

Enlist practitioners to help. Students listen to educators in a completely different way than they listen to accountants in the field. Practitioners’ insights and involvement add real-world perspective to your lessons and can result in great synergies that will benefit your students as they enter the workforce.

Invite practitioners to visit the classroom. Guide them in discussions on how changes in technology currently affect their work and how they expect such changes will impact their career in the future. Ask them to demo the programs and discuss the training they use in practice. If finding time for practitioners to speak in class is difficult, get them in touch with student groups such as student accounting societies and Beta Alpha Psi about setting up technology demonstrations and panel discussions

Steven Harms, CPA, a senior manager at PwC in Pittsburgh, has spoken to my financial accounting classes about current and planned technology innovations at his firm. He also presents the beneficial aspects of technology. He noted, “The assimilation of technology presents opportunities for accountants to do less of the monotonous and take on more of the responsibility to solve organization-wide issues.”

Encourage practitioners to communicate their “wish list” of skills to students. Have them be explicit and detailed about what technological and interpersonal skills are expected for new and future graduates. The earlier this information is communicated to students, the better they can incorporate it into their study plan. Be sure to share the list with your advisory council and curriculum committee as well.

Madeline Trimble, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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