Work with other departments to bring more tech to your curricula

Follow these tips for successful interdepartmental collaborations.
By Courtney L. Vien

As university accounting departments integrate more data analytics and other emerging technologies into their classrooms, collaborations such as Bentley University's master's degree program in accounting analytics may become more common. Launched in 2019, the program includes courses from various departments, not only accounting but also information and process management (IPM), math, and statistics.  

By working with other departments, accounting programs can offer students courses in areas their faculty do not specialize in, while they give students the solid accounting acumen they need to thrive in the profession.

To learn more about the challenges and rewards of collaborating with other departments, Extra Credit spoke with Joy Gray, Ph.D., senior lecturer in accounting and vice chair of the accounting department at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., who helped develop the new master's program.

What was one initial obstacle you faced when planning the program?

Gray: The administration did not want to add new classes at that point in time so the only way we could create a program was to use classes that were already in place, and perhaps tweak them a little.

Why did you decide to look outside the accounting department for courses to include in the program?

Gray: For a number of reasons, we couldn't modify our curriculum enough to satisfy what was necessary for the program. We did not have enough faculty available who had the analytics expertise. And we knew that one of the problems with most accounting courses is that they're over-contented. We're already trying to squeeze too much content in, so we didn't want to add too much more [to existing accounting classes].

How did you decide which departments to work with?

Gray: The faculty member who led our efforts, Jane Fedorowicz, has a dual appointment. She primarily reports to the accounting department, but her secondary appointment is in IPM. The logical place to start was with the IPM department so she could help coordinate. But at the same time, the university was launching a business analytics program. And we have a really strong math department as well that was doing a lot with analytics, so we brought all those pieces together.

How did faculty from outside the accounting department react to this idea?

Gray: For the most part they were really excited. They wanted some examples of accounting material they could use in their classes to support the program. We also heard the concern "Well, I don't know accounting, so am I going to mess your students up?"

What are some of the challenges you faced?

Gray: Communication is probably the most difficult piece. We all teach on different days. We teach at different times. We're on campus on different days. We're in different buildings. We're all busy with teaching and research. We meet for general faculty meetings three times a year, but those are jampacked full of other things.

What was the process of getting permission to start a new academic program like for you?

Gray: Like most universities, Bentley has a defined governance system, which says what you have to do to create a new program. In our case, we were creating a new degree and it impacted multiple departments. First, each department that it impacted had to approve it. Then, as it is a grad program, a graduate curriculum implementation committee had to approve it. Representatives of the dean's office had to approve it. After that it had to go to the faculty senate and then to the general faculty for a vote as well. We moved pretty quickly with this and it still took us the better part of an academic year to get through the governance process.

How did you ensure communication across departments to make sure there was no overlap?

Gray: Most of the departments had curriculum committees so we started talking with them. We also worked with the campus academic technology center to help us get the right software applications in the hands of our students. At one point we had a couple of user group meetings for specific software (Tableau), but then the pandemic derailed us. I will say we were really ramping up and having a lot more cross-departmental communication before 2020 slowed everything down.

Were there unexpected benefits to this collaboration?

Gray: I think there were. I got to the point where I needed to add a piece on predictive analytics to one of my classes and I ran out of ideas. I had a really great conversation with a faculty member from our math department, and he asked to see what I was doing and wanted to add something similar in his classes. So, it does build some great cross-curricular opportunities.

Last semester my students wanted to see what everybody else had done [in their projects]. So, I added an elevator pitch component: On the last day of class, they would present a summary of something notable they had done with the course project. And we were all in awe of one student who was showing us these beautiful visualizations she had done. I asked, "How did you learn to do this?" She said she had taken the data science course, which is one of our electives, and literally half my class said, "Oh, I'm signing up for that course now!" I wanted to sit in on it myself. [The collaboration] does really give you an idea of what's going on outside of your little world on campus.

What advice would you give to faculty or leaders from other departments about collaborating across departments?

Gray: Somebody's got to be the champion. You've got to have some clearly defined expectations and somebody who can make sure those get executed. Communication is critical.

Be aware that you're probably going to have to do some updates on the technology side, the software side. A lot of the [data analytics] software is not compatible with Mac computers. Half of our students are on Macs, so we had to really work with our software vendors as well as our IT department and the academic technology center to make sure that we had a plan for licensing and for deploying on virtual machines and supporting the students when things go wrong. That's another piece, knowing who on campus is using what software. It's a bigger challenge than you would think.

And the third thing is not to just bolt the software on to an existing class. Sometimes faculty will add software even though it doesn't really fit with the rest of their curriculum, so they can "check the box" [that they've included software in their course]. There's plenty of research supporting the concept that students don't learn as well out of context. The software needs to be taught in the context of their future job or internships they've done.

That's one of the challenges with having other departments teach accounting students: they're not giving the material an accounting context. The accounting faculty have to be the ones to tie that together. That has to be our job; we can't outsource that. That means we have to know what students are learning in the other courses.

How can administrators support accounting faculty who are teaching technology?

Gray: We've got another piece of research that was published in Issues in Accounting Education. It is based on a survey of other accounting departments. One thing we identified that's a barrier for a lot of departments is that curriculum development and training in new technology is not heavily rewarded by a lot of accounting departments. It's not enough just to say to faculty, "OK, you guys need to [teach more technology]." You need to do something to encourage your accounting faculty to do it. You have to show them the value, that it's worthwhile.

The profession is clearly telling us they want students who have a higher degree of technological skill than our current graduates. If we want to give them those skills, we have to make sure faculty have the training and support that they need.

How has your department supported faculty?

Gray: In the last year we've added two new roles in the accounting department, one of which looks at the overall curriculum to figure out where the pieces fit together and how that touches on curricula from other departments. We also added a data analytics coordinator role, and this is a person who will help you identify and deliver data analytics projects in your classes.

What's the feedback been like on the new master's program?

Gray: I think overall it's been positive. Our graduates are getting placed very quickly. The employers have embraced it wholeheartedly. The program is STEM-designated so that's a huge benefit for our international students because it makes them eligible for an extension of their optional practical training [allowing them to work in the U.S. for a longer period of time following graduation]. 

Some students are hesitant to join the program, because it is very math-centric. There's a lot of statistics in it and it's also technology-centric. But we're seeing more Bentley accounting undergraduates wanting to move into the program because it is very unique. We are also working on another update to the program that will launch in 2022.

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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