UMass Online Course Spotlight: Accounting Information Systems

ACT 355 Accounting Information Systems which is an online course I will be teaching in the Fall 2015 semester.  I’d like to give prospective students an idea of what the course is like and my perspective as its professor.

First, let me first introduce myself.  I am Michael P. Griffin, a full-time accounting professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  I hold a CPA and a CMA and have over 30 years of full-time teaching experience. I also have extensive practical business experience.

Accounting Information Systems is a common course in most undergraduate accounting programs.  Most business students have to take an “IS” (information systems) course but an AIS course is different. Obviously, its focus is on the accounting system as opposed to a basic MIS course which covers the variety of information systems that managers use to make decisions and run their businesses.  An AIS processes business transactions, but that is not all it does.  It is also the engine of financial reporting and management accounting outputs such as budgets. 

A simple view of an AIS is this: 

Inputs →  Processing → Outputs (such as financial statements, budgets, special reports)

The processing today is mostly done by computers and software however, our online version of AIS does not focus on any one accounting system software package.  Some schools will designed their course around a system like Quickbooks or Microsoft Dynamics, but in this course, I take a systems approach and put a heavier emphasis on such topics as flowcharts, IT and the CPA, internal control systems, MS Excel as an accountant’s tool, ethics and fraud and its connection to AIS. 

I have designed the online version of this course to begin with the fundamentals of an AIS and I do that with a paper-based accounting system that encompasses the entire accounting cycle, requires the use of special journals, subsidiary ledgers, audit trails, proper documentation, and the use of MS Excel to prepare financials. Some critics might scoff at the idea of a paper-based system.  Some might say that it is outdated – that hardly anyone uses such a system anymore.  However, there is still a philosophy of teaching accounting (which I too believe) that states it is difficult, if not impossible, to really learn accounting systems by starting with a computerized system.  The “black box” of the computer or better yet – the coding of the software – effectively hides the elements of the system including the use of special journals, subsidiary ledgers, internal controls and procedures.  Therefore, I believe that every accounting student should work a complete accounting cycle through a manual system at least once in their studies and that is accomplished early on in this course.

In designing this course, I also began with the end in mind.  What I mean by this is that as a CPA and a CMA, I want to make sure that the course maps well to the content specifications of the CPA and CMA exam.  Accounting, like other professional studies such as nursing and law, have professional exams that many aspire to accomplish.  Some jobs, like that of the public accountant or a company controller, can’t be done without these credentials.  I want students to get a good taste of the topics covered on those exams (CPA and CMA) in the area of AIS and IT.  To do that, I emphasize a systems approach; I want students to understand the elements of an accounting system at its very fundamental levels of inputs, processing and outputs.  Certainly, we cover new technologies, but to pass the IT sections of the two top accounting certification exams, you must understand the basics and that involves being able to read flow charts and to comprehend how common and core business functions are “tracked” by the accounting system.  This approach also dovetails nicely with auditing and works well if a student has had an auditing course or plans on taking one soon.  

Here is a look at the content specifications for the IT part of the BEC section of the CPA exam as these are topics that I must consider when designing this course.  These topics might give you added insight into course coverage because I too watch these topics as they are covered on the Uniform CPA exam and I want to bring them into ACT 355.

Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)

A. Organizational Needs Assessment

1. Data capture

2. Processing

3. Reporting

4. Role of information technology in business strategy

B. Systems Design and Other Elements

1. Business process design (integrated systems, automated, and manual interfaces)

2. Information Technology (IT) control objectives

3. Role of technology systems in control monitoring

4. Operational effectiveness

5. Segregation of duties

6. Policies

C. Security

1. Technologies and security management features

2. Policies

D. Internet – Implications for Business

1. Electronic commerce

2. Opportunities for business process reengineering

3. Roles of internet evolution on business operations and organization cultures

E. Types of Information System and Technology Risks

F. Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity

ACT 355 also crosses over into others sections of the CPA exam and although the course is not a comprehensive treatment of CPA exam topics, we do discuss many “CPA” issues related to financial reporting, regulation, and auditing.  For example, one assignment in this course focuses on the 10K (financial reporting), several readings deal with assurance services (new revenue streams for CPAs) and some that are directly tied to the AIS, internal controls, Sarbanes Oxley, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the role of the internal auditors.

I draw upon professional content in this course.  This isn’t “pie in the sky theory.”  It is from the past CPA BEC exams and a database of adapted questions from Gleim Publishing (who I have partnered with) that I draw assessment questions for this course.  One technology that I have adopted for learning is the Gleim CPA Review System.  Gleim is a well-known and highly regarded publisher of review materials for the CPA, CMA, and CIA exams.  We have partnered with Gleim to offer our students free access to their learning system.  I use Gleim to supplement our Blackboard system and its content.  I believe this is a great, “value-added” benefit to the course.  This means that students in ACT 355 will study CPA exam material in the same way that CPA candidates do, by studying efficient-learning content outlines and taking computer based quizzes based on that content including subjects like: IT Roles, Systems and Processes, IT Software, Data, and Contingency Planning, and IT Networks and Electronic Commerce.  This is a great way to introduce pertinent content while helping students to become comfortable with the type of learning systems they might use once they graduate and work on professional designations.  Gleim is a world leader in this field and has helped thousands of professionals pass the CPA, CMA, CIA, and Enrolled Agent (IRS) exams.

As I stated before, the course does not “teach” or require knowledge of a particular AIS software but it does require that students use Microsoft Excel for some assignments.  There is no getting around it – MS Excel is a tool that all aspiring accountants need to use so it is integrated into the course … but have no fear.  Even if you are an Excel novice, you can pick up some knowledge and skill as the course includes online resources to bring you up to speed with Microsoft Excel. However, we don’t just use Excel, we also study how “worksheets have errors like dogs have fleas” and how “garbage in means garbage out.”  Students learn steps to build quality controls into spreadsheet development and how to properly document their work, which are all marketable skills in today’s accounting profession.

One particular interesting aspect of the course is fraud and ethics and we examine one very interesting fraud case that involves embezzlement by a bookkeeper.  Using articles from the popular press such as the Boston Globe, students learn how a bookkeeper “cooked” the books to steal millions of dollars from a Massachusetts based small to medium sized business.  We also learn how accounting professional standards of conduct (ethics) play a very important role in promoting the integrity of the accounting system but in the end it is honest, well-trained, and hard-working people that make it all work.  The human element of the AIS is not lost in this course.

ACT 355 draws upon the tools available in Blackboard to help assure a quality experience for the student.  The course is organized into manageable learning modules, using relatively short videos, offers class discussions/forums to provide support, and relies on frequent announcements and an active professor blog to keep students up-to-date.  My personal philosophy is to respond quickly to students and although I believe my expertise is valuable in the delivery of this course, my number one quality as a professor is reliability.  You can count on me to respond quickly, consistently, and effectively to your questions and your other information needs. Additionally, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, we have a team of very dedicated and highly capable professionals that support our myCourses (Blackboard) system and provide first-class help to students and faculty alike.  Our faculty go through a series of training workshops and our courses go through a very effective quality review before they are launched.

ACT 355 utilizes two traditional learning materials in addition to the digital content and tools.  I have adopted a basic AIS textbook and a practice set. The basic textbook also maps well with the professional accounting exams and the practice set is a highly regarded AIS case.  However, other than the paper-based AIS case, all the work is submitted via myCourses which is UMASS Dartmouth’s learning management system – an easy to use – very user friendly system.  The course material is supported with video of screencasts that I have recorded – mini-lectures, PPTs and briefings on course content and assignments. 

Prospective students should also know that I have had extensive experience teaching online courses at the UMASS Dartmouth Charlton College of Business, a school that is accredited by the prestigious AACSB.  Other courses that I have taught online include FIN 320 Personal Finance, ACT 490 Special topics: Fraud Examination, and our very popular Internship course – a semester-long course when combined with an internship experience that allows our students to earn 3 credits for one of their business electives. 

ACT 3CT 355 runs from Sept 2, 2015- Dec 15, 2015.  I would be happy to forward a sample syllabus to interested students so you can learn more about the course, its assignments, the required materials, and the grading scheme.  If you would like to enroll in the course, please visit the University Extension web page at UMASS Dartmouth.