extra-credit-header-2018

How top innovators teach technology

Faculty share their best assignment ideas for teaching tech.
Interviews by Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D. Edited by Courtney Vien.

Four faculty members known for their innovative approaches to teaching technology were interviewed for the AICPA’s 2019 spring Council meeting. They discussed assignments they use to introduce students to new platforms, the types of technology students should learn before graduation, their personal philosophies about teaching technology, and much more. Here’s what they had to say.

The faculty members are:

Gia Chevis, Ph.D., graduate program director and associate clinical professor of accounting and business law at Baylor University, who is teaching a new data and analytics course for graduate students.

Elaine Mauldin, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accountancy at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who teaches information systems and auditing.

Kevin Rich, Ph.D., department chair and associate professor of accounting at Marquette University, who teaches accounting information systems and is involved with Marquette’s plans to launch a master’s degree in accounting analytics.

Julie Suh, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical accounting at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, who teaches students SAS and Python and who has created the Excel modeling labs required for students in all introductory financial and managerial accounting classes at USC.

What is your philosophy toward teaching technology?

Kevin Rich: I think it really boils down to delivering an applied learning experience — putting students in scenarios where they’re going to have to figure out some things on their own but in a very safe environment. I don’t do very much hand-holding at all. I introduce concepts and techniques, and then I expect students to be able to use those techniques to tackle some fairly open-ended projects. It’s really hard for us to prepare these future professionals for everything, but if I can help students be ready to go outside their comfort zone and tackle problems, then I think that’s a win.

Elaine Mauldin: Whereas in the past, I’ve done more talking about the technologies, today we’re building cases and using the technology much more in a hands-on way.

Technology is always going to change. It doesn’t really matter a whole lot what particular technology I teach. It matters that students understand that they can learn a new technology, they can use it, and they can apply it. Then when they see [software] that they haven’t seen in the classroom, they’ll be able to use it.

What’s been your greatest challenge when teaching technology?

Julie Suh: Time. We only meet a couple times a week. There’s not that much time that I can spend covering that on top of the accounting material.

Gia Chevis: As we improve and update our skill set with technology, we get comfortable ourselves with not having all of our classes planned out from the very first day, with having to reduce the cycle time for our course development. We can’t wait as long as we have in the past to make changes to our courses. We can’t count on being able to teach the same material in the same way multiple semesters in a row. We have to be willing to walk with our students to learn as we go and get that just-in-time knowledge for tasks that we need to get done.

Describe a technique or assignment you use to help students learn technology.

Suh: Excel can be pretty dry depending on how it’s taught. The first thing I wanted to do with this class is make it fun, and I wanted to demystify Excel for those students that were a little nervous.

One of the things my students do is build a battleship game in Excel. They get really into it. My class meets only once a week for an hour, and I find that the students stay in the classroom for like two to three hours after that just trying to get the problem. They will stay up all night trying to get this battleship game to work. Then when they do, they’re waking up their poor roommates and showing them their battleship game.

A more important reason why I do this is that they’re not going to be able to find the answers online. This generation can look for the answer online, but if it’s not online, they’re at a loss for what to do. Part of what I wanted to do with this class is have them learn to solve this problem step-by-step. That sort of mentality translates pretty naturally to when I teach them how to code because programming is a series of little problems.

Rich: One of my favorite assignments in my accounting information systems course is a case where students have to use a series of datasets. First, they need to understand the processes that were in place that led to the data that they end up getting. Because one of the things that you can’t lose sight of when doing some sort of analysis is that there’s a business process that is driving the data that you get.

Then I have them do a full-fledged visualization exercise in Tableau. They have to import data, they have to combine different tables in a way that makes sense, and then I leave them to evaluate the dataset against a set of red flags — risks that they need to be on the lookout for. It’s going to be up to them to use Tableau to create the right visualization that has them searching for the anomalies that are worth investigating further.

One of the things that I like about this project is that it gives me an opportunity to test their courage. I actually build in things that they have to do that don’t have any problems at all, and that’s really scary for them. They need to remember that there’s going to be a lot of things that they’re going to audit that are just fine, and you have to have enough confidence to know that the evidence supports that everything is OK.

What advice would you give faculty about teaching technology?

Rich: It’s not as scary as it sounds. Very few of us accounting academics are data scientists. It’s really a matter of giving it a shot and digging into some tools and just kind of figuring out how they work.

Tableau has created a series of two- to five-minute videos on how to do certain things, and frankly that’s how I learned how to use Tableau. I just spent a couple days kind of going through things and became proficient enough to be able to teach a course based on it. Sometimes we’re [only] a couple months ahead of our students, but there are a lot of resources available to us. We just have to make sure and take advantage of them.

What types of technology skills will students need before they graduate?

Suh: At a base level, every business student needs to be proficient in Excel. Excel, at this point, is table stakes. Beyond that, being able to work with large datasets, understand and know how to clean data, analyze data, and some level of proficiency with a programming language would be helpful. Programming is being taught at the elementary school level now. I think it’s going to be part of the curriculum no matter where you go.

Why do you teach students to code?

Rich: When I think about coding, there’s really two benefits. The first has nothing to do with what you’re going to be able to do with the code. It has everything to do with approaching how to solve a problem. One of the nice things about coding is that you have to lay out a specific set of instructions, and you have to sit and think about what you want to accomplish with each step. There’s really nothing that builds problem-solving skills better than that.

Coding also lets professionals do things that they may not otherwise be in a position to do with traditional software packages. For example, I show my students that they can write some simple code to loop through a set of test procedures, and make that repeatable.

What do you see happening in accounting education in the future as it relates to incorporating technology into courses?

Chevis: Part of that need to reduce cycle time for course and curriculum development is going to necessitate deepening those ties with practice to make [the needs of practice] more top-of-mind so that we can, on a near real-time basis, incorporate that into our courses. The more we can work with practitioners, through accreditation, goal setting, visiting classes, and developing course material, the better off we’ll all be.

Rich: We need to remember that we live in a world where many answers are a simple Google search away. That means that we need as academics to move away from the “sage on the stage” model to being a much more active participant in student learning. My favorite classes are those when I set aside some time for our students to work in groups on some of my applied projects. Then I use that as an opportunity to interact with students, providing tips and one-on-one feedback, [acting] more as a guide as anything else.

Yvonne Hinson, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., is academic-in-residence at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. 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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