6 ways to include more technology in the accounting curriculum

AIS courses are just one piece of the puzzle.
By Cheryl Meyer

The accounting profession needs graduates who are conversant with at least the basics of control over business processes and accounting data. However, as a survey by the AICPA and National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) found, a gap exists between the types of technology that are being taught in accounting programs and the technological acumen that employers seek. According to the survey, fewer than 50% of accounting department heads say their curricula include such topics as predictive analytics, systems and organization control engagements (SOC), digital acumen, cybersecurity, IT governance, and IT risks and controls.

Accounting information systems (AIS) courses can play a key role in closing this gap, but they shouldn’t carry the full burden of teaching students about new technologies.

"At many universities, AIS has become a catchall course for any technology that needs to be incorporated into the curriculum," said Jan Taylor-Morris, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., an associate professor of accounting at Sam Houston State University, and the academic in residence at the AICPA. That can mean that technology is not well integrated across the curriculum, she said.

When AIS is the primary way accounting students learn about technology, AIS faculty might attempt to cover too many technologies in their courses, emphasizing exposure with too little skill depth, said Margarita Lenk, Ph.D., associate professor in the departments of accounting and computer information systems at Colorado State University.

Currently, there's no clear consensus as to what an AIS course should include. The goals of AIS courses vary by school, and the technologies and topics taught depend partly on each school’s student body, location, and which employers and industries tend to hire its graduates. AIS faculty typically determine the content of their courses, in collaboration with their colleagues and advisory boards.

Some actions on the part of professional bodies may soon bring a higher degree of consistency to how technology is taught in accounting departments. The AICPA and NASBA have created The CPA Evolution initiative, a joint project created to modify the CPA licensure model based on the changing skills that accounting graduates now need. In tandem with this project, the AICPA is developing an updated version of the Uniform CPA Examination for 2024, which will incorporate the model’s new core and disciplines structure. Information systems and controls is one of the three new disciplines. This change, in addition to new accounting accreditation teaching and learning standards from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, will likely put pressure on university accounting departments to figure out ways to better integrate technologies into their curricula.

“The CPA Evolution highlights the need for a curricular approach to integration of professional technology tools,” Lenk said. “Accounting faculty need to work together to create sequentially developmental curricular outcomes.”

In the meantime, here are some steps faculty and accounting departments can take to improve their coverage of technology:

Plug the holes. Review your courses and determine whether you are teaching the eight topics mentioned in the gap analysis report, or teaching them in enough depth, Taylor-Morris said. She also encouraged faculty to review the AICPA/NASBA CPA Evolution Model Curriculum once it launches in June 2021. While the model curriculum might not initially contain “specific course structures,” she said, “we are providing suggested courses for specific topics, and there will be an opportunity for AIS professors to find common topics and learning objectives that might fit best within their course curriculum.”

The AIS course “is extremely important and, for many programs, will play a key role in helping students develop the digital acumen needed for the accounting profession,” she said.

Learn the tools. Faculty should learn tools such as Alteryx, Tableau, and Power BI, and look for opportunities within their current classes to utilize those tools, said Lorraine Lee, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accounting at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, who teaches an advanced topics in AIS course. "I taught a graduate-level database class and integrated Alteryx with that class, and it was a huge success," she said. “The students were able to make the connection between SQL queries and the corresponding Alteryx functionalities, helping their overall understanding of both.”

Study syllabuses. Most departments are open to sharing their syllabuses for accounting courses, AIS included, so take advantage of that resource. Lenk suggested identifying 20 peer institutions and obtaining their syllabuses to get an idea of what technologies your courses could include.

Get involved. Join the AIS Educator Association, the American Accounting Association's AIS and SET (Strategic and Emerging Technologies) sections, or other similar groups to stay up to speed as to what's happening in the profession, both Lenk and Lee said. These groups host training bootcamps and provide many helpful resources to their members, said Lenk.

Tap young alumni. University accounting departments often have an untapped resource at their disposal: their recent graduates who are tech-savvy and working in the field. Lenk recommends that accounting departments start young alumni advisory boards "because it is the young alumni who know which tools are critical to the profession.” In addition, advised Lee, invite young alumni to speak to students about what technologies and tools they are using.

Teach critical thinking. Critical thinking is a key component of helping students develop a digital mindset. As Taylor-Morris observed, the gap analysis survey identified “digital acumen” as a topic covered by approximately 30% of larger accounting programs and only 15% of smaller programs. “By delivering knowledge of technologies along with critical thinking and problem-solving, faculty will help students begin to develop digital acumen organically,” she said.

Lenk, who teaches both an undergraduate and graduate AIS course, said her class is largely about "critical thinking and problem-solving.” Her students review topics such as stakeholders’ assumptions and biases, strategy objectives, resources and processes, potential risks, and internal controls. She advises students to learn "when to pull each tool out of your toolkit and why,” and helps them understand the role and the variables that can add value to an organization when "designing, operating, auditing, and maintaining" systems. She also asks students to rank alternative choices and defend their selections in terms of how those investments and choices make an organization more competitive.

Join us on June 15–16 for a free online event announcing the launch of the new CPA Evolution Model Accounting Curriculum. During this event, task force members who created the curriculum will give attendees a thorough overview of the curriculum and discuss how accounting departments can prepare students for the new Information Systems and Controls, Business and Reporting, and Tax Compliance and Planning disciplines. Register online.

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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