Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA
Employers continue to emphasize a need for accounting graduates with an expert-level ability to analyze and interpret large amounts of data using current and emerging technologies. With the automation of many more menial tasks, such as rolling over prior years' files and importing financial information, new tax practitioners are now asked to hit the ground running — completing a greater variety of more complex returns than previous generations.
Current technologies can also be used in new ways. For example, recent graduates might use visualization software to sort prior tax returns and explore how proposed tax policies might affect taxpayers with different filing statuses or from different states. Technology is ubiquitous in their job, and employers expect near-immediate technological proficiency.
To meet these expectations, a few professional accounting organizations took action by implementing new requirements and rolling out new programs, all of which serve to reiterate the message that accounting curriculum must incorporate technology — not just some of it, but all of it.
This column considers these challenges and proposes strategies to comprehensively integrate technology into the curriculum in a way that simultaneously meets employer demands and academic accreditation requirements and aligns with the structure of the new CPA Exam.Accreditation requirements and CPA Evolution
In 2013, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) started requiring all separately accredited accounting programs to incorporate information technology into their curriculum. Then, in 2018, the AACSB upped the ante by adding a requirement that both faculty and students master current technology and learn emerging technologies and that technology be incorporated across the entire accounting curriculum (see the AACSB's 2018 Standards for Accounting Accreditation, Standard A5, p. 21).
The CPA Evolution Initiative — a joint effort of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) and the AICPA — recently released planned updates to the CPA licensure model, which will roll out in 2024. The "evolved" CPA Exam is intended to reflect the realities of practice today and involves a "core + discipline" approach to licensure, offering candidates an opportunity to elect a specialization (see the AICPA's 2021 New Model for Licensure).
Under the new model, three parts of the Exam will cover core concepts related to accounting and data analytics (ACCT), audit and accounting information systems (AUDIT), and taxation (TAX). A fourth, discipline-specific section will cover material related to the candidate's chosen specialization. Candidates may choose one of three specializations from the following: business analysis and reporting (BAR), information systems and controls (ISC), and tax compliance and planning (TCP).
The new licensure model emphasizes data analytics, technology, and digital acumen across all four parts of the Exam. The AICPA has also released a CPA Evolution Model Curriculum guide, outlining content covered by each part of the evolved Exam and mapping it to various accounting courses. A notable addition to the planned content of the core sections of the Exam is "technology and digital acumen." Each specialization option also includes technology content such as advanced data analytics and information security. (See the chart, "New CPA Exam Model.")
Technology integration challenges
Preparing students with technological skills is clearly a shared objective of academic institutions and the AICPA. However, the purpose of accounting curricula is to prepare students for a successful accounting career and lifelong learning, while the CPA Exam is meant to assess the knowledge and skills needed to progress in the accounting profession. Because these objectives are somewhat different, the challenge for accounting faculty is to translate the technology expectations of important stakeholders in the classroom without sacrificing coverage of knowledge and competencies beyond those covered by the Exam, but also critical for early career success.
So far, accounting programs have taken a number of approaches to incorporating technology in the classroom. To meet initial AACSB requirements, many programs supplemented their current course offerings with technology-based assignments on an ad hoc basis; others added a required course in data analytics. But the requirements to incorporate technology across the curriculum, added in 2018, have presented a number of additional challenges.
For one, there is quite a bit of disagreement among accounting instructors regarding how to incorporate data analytics and technology into the curriculum. The results of multiple surveys, published in 2018, show that generally all instructors agree that data analytics should be incorporated into the teaching of accounting information systems (AIS). While a majority of instructors expressed a preference for a hybrid approach, developing a stand-alone data analytics course and incorporating data analytic learning objectives into other existing courses, few believe that it should be infused across the entire curriculum. In fact, most were largely indifferent on the matter (see Dow et al., "A Framework and Resources to Create a Data Analytics-Infused Accounting Curriculum,"36 Issues in Accounting Education 183 (November 2021); Dzuranin et al., "Infusing Data Analytics Into the Accounting Curriculum: A Framework and Insights from Faculty," 43 Journal of Accounting Education 24 (June 2018); Ballou et al., "Data-Driven Decision-Making and Its Impact on Accounting Undergraduate Curriculum," 44 Journal of Accounting Education 14 (June 2018)).
Even if everyone were on board, though, there appears to be a severe shortage of qualified faculty to accomplish the goal. A more recent survey of accredited accounting programs shows that only 23% felt they successfully met the new AACSB technology requirements (see Andiola et al., "Integrating Technology and Data Analytic Skills Into the Accounting Curriculum: Accounting Department Leaders' Experiences and Insights," 50 Journal of Accounting Education 1 (March 2020)), primarily due to a lack of qualified faculty.
There is also the issue of resources. Most notably, curriculum changes require a significant amount of time. Faculty will need to research and select technology tools appropriate for each course, learn new tools and techniques, and incorporate practical exercises, cases, and assignments in their curriculum. Fortunately, several options are available.
Initial steps toward incorporating technology
Integration should be seamless and immersive but, as a practical matter, not crowd out existing content. Despite some of the challenges, there are many quick, effective changes that can be easily incorporated into the curriculum in the short term. The following suggestions do not require highly specialized technological skills.
Laptops in class
For a time, university classroom policies discouraged students from bringing laptops to class since they were considered a distraction. It is time to move on from this antiquated policy and lean into laptop use. Students should also be encouraged to look up real-life examples that are relevant to in-class discussions. For example, when discussing the life of a copyright, students could be instructed to look up the financial statements of Walt Disney Corp. A supplementary Google search might also allow them to discover how Disney lobbied for the Copyright Term Extension Act, P.L. 105-298. This type of exercise develops students' ability to access publicly available financial information and discern between reliable and less reliable sources.
Classroom activities should incorporate software platforms, such as Excel, to work through in-class exercises and allow students to get comfortable with the software during ungraded activities. For example, tax students can be asked to compare the future value of a traditional versus a Roth IRA, incorporating technology into tax planning. The AICPA offers faculty full access to award-winning assignments, including data analytics projects and a virtual escape room (see the AICPA's Academic Resource Hub).
Microsoft Office certification
Although employers have reported a varying degree of technology use in their practices, there is nearly unanimous agreement that new graduates must be proficient in Microsoft Office, most importantly Excel, but also Word, PowerPoint, and Access. Many universities are incorporating Microsoft Office Specialist certifications through Certiport as required components of their business core. Students may also earn advanced certifications at the expert and master level in Word and Excel. There are many resources for self-paced learning, which can be supplemented by certified teaching assistants, and students can report certifications on their résumés (see suggested learning materials).
QuickBooks is a popular choice of accounting software for many small businesses, and incorporating it in early accounting courses allows students to experience the fundamentals of accounting in a more realistic, computerized setting. There are many textbooks that offer self-paced learning that can complement an introductory accounting course, and students can also earn certification (see resources from Labyrinth Learning).
Online textbooks and exams
Although ebooks are not new, the technology has come a long way in recent years. Many publishers have added other resources, such as short videos for each learning objective, interactive data analytic assignments using Excel, and CPA Exam practice simulations. While monitoring online work to ward off cheating can be difficult, other testing features enhance education, such as immediate feedback and automatic grading. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced faculty to incorporate online assessments, perhaps on a temporary basis, but there is much to be gained and much to still learn from the venture. (See Chambers, Roberto, and Zencak, "Lessons Learned From Assessing Students in a Pandemic" (Harvard Business Publishing, May 13, 2021)).
Full integration of technology into the curriculum
To accomplish full integration of technology that meets the somewhat vague but high expectations of employers — and prepares students for the CPA Exam's assessment of technology and digital acumen — all accounting courses will need to incorporate advanced use of technology, big data, and data analytics. A realistic strategy would be to phase in technology in a way that complements and enhances current course content across the curriculum.
These strategies involve a steep learning curve for students and faculty alike but are nevertheless the direction that all accounting programs should be working toward. The following suggestions are aligned with the three core sections of the evolved CPA Exam but should be incorporated broadly across all relevant course offerings.
At the introductory level, students should be able to research financial data and company filings through the SEC's Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) database. At the more advanced levels, students can be introduced to big data — in terms of high volume and wide variety — using eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL). At this stage, students can use Excel to import XBRL data and apply ratio analysis to analyze and compare firm performance.
Auditing and accounting information systems
At a minimum, auditing courses should incorporate technologies that allow students to use computer-assisted audit techniques (CAAT) and data analytics using generalized audit software packages, such as IDEA. Alteryx is a data analytics platform that is also gaining significant traction in the auditing field. Both options offer free student versions of the software and a variety of training resources.
Another important skill for auditing students is the use of data visualization to enhance and communicate audit findings. Many opportunities for data visualization also exist in cost and managerial topics; for example, analyzing cost drivers and making pricing or product line decisions. A popular software for this purpose is Tableau, also available to students for free. Although technology is already an important component of the AIS curriculum, continued content enhancements might include relatively new concepts, such as process mining or the use of data processing software such as SAP.
Most undergraduate tax classes require students to prepare at least one hypothetical return, which presents an opportunity to integrate tax preparation software, and graduate courses generally teach students to use databases such as RIA Checkpoint, CCH, and/or LexisNexis to research tax issues. But the sheer volume of tax data that is generated and aggregated by any organization today is ripe for emerging data analytics technologies. For example, students might use visualization software, such as Tableau, to determine the potential impact of tax policy reform. Data analytics and visualizations can also be used to compare the IRS's Statistics of Income for a particular industry and company size to a client's hypothetical return, allowing students to identify potential red flags and resolve issues (see the IRS's "Tax Statistics" page. Artificial intelligence, such as Blue J, can also be used to predict, validate, and substantiate controversial tax positions. Blue J uses students' answers to a series of guided questions to statistically predict the correct position with greater than 90% accuracy.
Mapping out a comprehensive integration plan
The options for incorporating technology in the accounting curriculum are vast. Although it may be tempting to completely overhaul the curriculum, or perhaps avoid it as long as possible, a methodical phase-in approach will likely be the most successful. Faculty will need to consider available resources, set short- and long-term goals, and develop a cohesive plan for integration. The integration plan should also consider how to reinforce and develop skills that were introduced in earlier courses. That is, full integration should be across the entire program, not concentrated within each individual course.
Most accounting programs will want to start by expanding the use of advanced technology, big data, and data analytics in the preexisting AIS course. A next logical step would be to determine whether there is capacity to add a stand-alone data analytics course to the program that can serve as a sort of primer for a variety of technologies and competencies. Finally, assignments and activities that build off prior core competencies can be incorporated into upper-level courses for each of the subdisciplines.
It should be noted that although the number of available technologies and software platforms can feel overwhelming, the AACSB has emphasized agility as an important component of technology requirements. That is, whether faculty choose to incorporate IDEA, Alteryx, Tableau, or perhaps Microsoft's PowerBI, students will be acquiring skills that are transferable across multiple platforms. Platforms such as LinkedIn Learning and edX may also be useful for faculty looking to develop their own skills on the road to integration.
|Erin Nickell, CPA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting, and Valrie Chambers, CPA, Ph.D., is an associate professor of accounting, both at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA, is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is a past chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.