Walter W. Austin Austin_WW@mercer.edu and Mary Jo Vaughan Vaughan_MJ@mercer.edu are associate professors at the Stetson School of Business and Economics, Mercer University.
Accounting professors, in choosing instructional materials, are confronted with a bewildering array of computer supplements to virtually every introductory accounting textbook. Existing research provides little help to faculty in choosing from the myriad of supplements. For over twenty years, accounting researchers have been studying the cognitive effects of a variety of techniques for integrating computers into the accounting curriculum; however, the results are frequently contradictory. After a comprehensive review of the studies concerning computer use in accounting instruction, Ng and Er (1989) opined that based on existing evidence "computing is irrelevant to the learning of accounting concepts" (pg 322) .
Research outside the accounting discipline is also inconsistent and thus largely inconclusive. Kulik and Kulik (1986) in a meta-analysis of 101 studies across disciplines found a significant overall positive learning effect attributed to computer use. On the other hand, Norris (1987) reported that studies in various disciplines at six universities had failed to establish a correlation between learning and computer use. An extensive study at Dartmouth conducted in 24 introductory courses found no difference in grades between computer owners and non-owners in 21 of the 24 courses (Norris 1987).
While the cognitive effects of computer use have been studied extensively, little research has been directed to the behavioral and attitudinal effects of integrating computers into the accounting curriculum. The few studies that have been conducted have yielded inconsistent results similar to the cognitive studies. This study investigates the behavioral and attitudinal effects of a technique for integrating computers into the introductory accounting courses.
Technology in Education
Twenty-five years ago, a decade before the microcomputer appeared, university-based computer experts and educational psychologists began envisioning the computer as a teacher. Software was created that presented facts, asked questions, checked answers, diagnosed problems, and suggested additional study. Many envisioned making the computer as effective as a human teacher. Efficient technology would replace labor intensive practices and change the shape of education.
The primary motivation for this vision was the belief that technology will support superior forms of learning (Means, 1994). In supporting learning, technology can be classified into four broad ways in which it can be used for instruction (Means, 1994). Technology can be used as a tutor when it provides information, demonstrations, or simulations in a sequence determined by the system. In this case, the technology does the teaching directly as in a workbook-like manner. In contrast, technology can be used to explore. In this instance, students move through information or demonstrations upon their request. Technology can be applied as a tool for accomplishing specific tasks such as composition, data analysis or data storage. Lastly, technology can be used to communicate allowing students to send and receive messages, information and data.
The current trend in many educational arenas is directed toward the third and fourth categories of use: technology as a tool and technology used to communicate (i.e. Becker, 1990, Means, 1994). In many cases, these technologies are being used to support students as they work on "authentic, challenging tasks" (Means, 1994, pg 12). In these tasks, students actually interact with material content. There is now widespread agreement among psychologists and educators (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989: Resnick, 1987) that interaction with material content increases the learners acquisition of skills such as comprehension, composition, reasoning, and experimentation.
One specific way in which technology has been applied as a tool is through the use of computers as an aid to problem solving. Quantitative courses, such as accounting, finance, economics, and statistics, have traditional textbooks augmented with computer supplements that provide the student with tools that allow them to solve problems and analyze data.
Prior Accounting Research
The earliest studies of the effects of using computers in accounting courses used them as tools to solve problems and sought to detect differences in performance on examinations. Baxter (1974) and Arnett (1976) examined differences in examination scores between experimental groups, which used template programs, and control groups, which did not use computers. In both studies, no differences were found in examination scores between control and experimental groups, leading them to conclude that the use of computers did not enhance accounting proficiency.
In the 1980s as computers became common, the American Accounting Association (AAA) recognized the growing pressure on accounting educators to integrate computer technology into accounting education. In an early report, the AAA (1985) identified these pressures as emanating from three primary sources. First, the AACSB reviews computer use in accounting courses as part of its accreditation evaluation of accounting programs. Second, the widespread use of computers in accounting practice has pressured accounting departments to produce computer literate graduates to enhance their employability. Third, computer use in secondary education has increased the expectations and desires of students to use computers in college (AAA 1985).
While recognizing the value of computers to accounting practice, the AAA was concerned about the efficacy of using computer technology to educate accounting students. Contradictory results from earlier studies such as Baxter (1974) and Arnett (1976), which indicated that using a computer in a course did not necessarily improve student performance, and studies which did find learning effects [McKeown, (1976); Groomer (1981); and Friedman, (1981)] prompted these concerns. As a result of concerns by its membership, the AAA formed The Committee on Integrating the Microcomputer into Undergraduate Financial Accounting to promote the study of ways to effectively integrate computer technology into accounting curriculum (AAA, 1985).
Concurrent with microcomputer use becoming widespread and the formation of the AAA study committee, accounting researchers were already exploring a variety of ways to use computers in accounting education. This research, similar to the research a decade earlier, primarily explored the cognitive effects of different techniques for incorporating computers in accounting courses and attempted to measure the effects by measuring examination performance.
Borthick and Clark (1986), while studying cognitive effects broadened the search for the effects of computers on students beyond the cognitive and into the affective domain with an investigation of attitudinal effects. While they did not detect performance differences, they found that student enthusiasm for using computers declined. Similarly, Dickens and Harper (1986) examined the effects of computer use on student achievement and attitudes in an intermediate accounting course. They required students to use an interactive computer program to solve either an interperiod tax allocation problem or an earnings per share problem. Examination performance of students who used computers and those who did not was the same. However, contrary to Borthick and Clarks (1986) results, they reported that students reacted positively to using computers.
Austin (1989) examined the performance and behavioral effects of using computers and spreadsheets in the introductory financial accounting course. He found no performance differences on examinations of either problems or essay questions between the control and experimental groups; however, he detected a decline in enthusiasm for using computers.
Kachelmeier, Jones, and Keller (1992), using a spreadsheet based template for pension accounting, observed a performance difference on examinations between the students who used the spreadsheet program and those who did not. They noted that the students in the study had been extensively exposed to computers in other classes so discounted the novelty effect of sparking interest in the subject matter which might be manifested in heightened interest in the subject matter. Despite finding cognitive effects, they cited the lack of a measurement of the attitudinal effects as a limitation of their study.
The authors theorized that a possible explanation for the decline in student enthusiasm could be frustration arising from an inability to use computers effectively. Hence, if technical inadequacy was, in fact, leading to students disillusionment, then increasing their proficiency might lessen or even eliminate the negative reaction. Since the positive cognitive effects detected by Kachelmeier, et. al. (1992) occurred for students who were exposed to computers in other classes, this study measured the behavioral and attitudinal effects of students exposed to computers through concurrent enrollment in an accounting and business software course. The authors hypothesized that exposure to computers might similarly produce behavioral effects and influence perceptions. This supposition leads to the following hypothesis:
H1: Students concurrently enrolled in an accounting course and computer course will voluntarily use computers on a project at a higher rate than students not concurrently enrolled.
In addition, the research investigated student perceptions regarding the use of computers as a tool in accounting. It was hypothesized that while students may not consider computers helpful for learning accounting principles, they may recognize their value as a tool for performing accounting functions, which leads to the following hypothesis:
H2: Students who use computers as a tool on an accounting project will consider the computer helpful.
Finally, the research evaluated whether students perceived concurrent enrollment as helpful in learning accounting. Psychologists and educators (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989: Resnick, 1987) generally agree that interaction with material content increases the learners cognitive development such as comprehension, composition and reasoning. With many of the examples and exercises in teaching spreadsheets using accounting problems, concurrent enrollment in a computer course and an accounting course may provide significant reinforcement of accounting concepts which might alter perceptions about the value of computers in learning accounting. This hypothesis is as follows:
H3: Students concurrently enrolled in accounting and computer courses will perceive the joint enrollment as helpful for learning accounting.
Students were concurrently enrolled in either a financial accounting or managerial accounting course and a MIS course. The MIS course was intended to develop proficiency in using spreadsheets and other business software. These courses were required courses for business majors. In each of the accounting courses, many of the problems selected for homework assignments were spreadsheet problems; in the MIS course the same problems were assigned for homework.
Ninety-two sophomores and juniors majoring in business were enrolled in the accounting courses and 21 were concurrently enrolled in the computer course. All of the students had completed an introductory MIS course that introduced spreadsheets along with other programs, but did not focus on developing proficiency. Students who withdrew from either the accounting or computer course were excluded from the data.
The cumulative grade point average (GPA) of the students and their competency in using spreadsheets prior to the beginning of the experiment were considered potential biasing factors. As a measure of proficiency, students were asked to rate their competence at using a spreadsheet at the beginning of the course. While the use of student perceptions about spreadsheet proficiency was not optimal, grades in the introductory computer science course were not used because spreadsheet proficiency constituted only a small component of the overall grade, and thus was not considered an appropriate measure of proficiency. A t-test was used to test for differences in mean GPAs and perceived competency ratings between the control and experimental groups. Because the groups were of different sizes, the homogeneity of variance assumption was confirmed using the Bartlett test. There was no significant differences between the mean GPAs for the two groups (t=1.139, p=. 258) nor perceived competency at using spreadsheets (t=1.829, p=. 071).
Three experienced instructors with doctoral degrees participated in the experiment. One instructor taught two sections of the financial accounting, another instructor taught three sections of managerial accounting, and the third instructor taught the MIS course.
Students in each of the accounting courses were assigned a major project that was due near the end of the course. This project required the computation of common-sized financial statements, percentage changes between years, and financial ratios. Students in the managerial accounting course were also required to perform additional extensive calculations. Because of the repetitive nature of the calculations, the cases were very well suited for spreadsheet use, but students were not required to use them. In the computer class, most of the spreadsheet instructional material used accounting examples, including exercises similar to the tasks required in the accounting projects.
The first hypothesis was evaluated by determining whether students had voluntarily used computers to complete the project. The authors believed that students were unenthusiastic about using computers because of their lack of proficiency, which would manifest itself in a reluctance to use computers if given a choice. Conversely, if the students were proficient they would not be unenthusiastic about using computers and they would voluntarily use computers them when confronted with an accounting problem requiring significant computations. The second and third hypotheses about the perceived helpfulness of the using a computer spreadsheet and concurrent enrollment were measured by self-report questionnaires. Students were asked to respond to the following questions: (1) was using the spreadsheet helpful in completing the project and (2) was the concurrent enrollment helpful in learning accounting? Student response was measured with a five point Likert scale (5 very helpful; 4 somewhat helpful; 3 neutral; 2 somewhat helpful; 1 not at all helpful).
Hypothesis One that students concurrently enrolled in an accounting and computer course will voluntarily use computers at a higher rate than students not concurrently enrolled was accepted. A total of 39 students used computer based spreadsheets on their projects. Sixteen of the 21 students (76%), who were jointly enrolled in the accounting and computer courses, used the computer on their projects, while only 25% (18 of 71), of those who were not jointly enrolled used computer based spreadsheets. Thus, concurrent enrollment in an accounting course and a course containing computer instruction appears to be an effective way of avoiding a decline in enthusiasm about using computers.
Hypothesis Two, that students who used computer spreadsheets on an accounting project will consider the computer a useful tool, was also accepted. The 39 students, who used computer based spreadsheets on their cases, felt very strongly that the computer had been a useful tool with a mean of 4.551 for perceived helpfulness versus a neutral value of 3.0 on a Likert scale.
The third hypothesis, which evaluated the perceived helpfulness of concurrent enrollment in accounting and computer courses to the learning of accounting, was accepted. Of the 21 students jointly enrolled, the mean for perceived helpfulness of concurrent enrollment in learning accounting was 4.286 with a .956 standard deviation versus a neutral value of 3.0. Thus, students believed that the concurrent enrollment aided in learning accounting. Previous research has found that students did not consider computers as an effective tool for learning accounting [Borthick & Clark (1986), and Austin, (1989)]. The change in perception from previous studies may arise because in this study the computers were reinforcing the accounting material rather than being the primary delivery method. This result is consistent with Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989 and Resnick, 1987, that interaction with material content increases the learners acquisition of skills and comprehension.
This study has several significant limitations. First, the students may not be representative of business students at other institutions. The institution is primarily an engineering institution that requires high quantitative SAT scores for admission. In addition, all students in the study have completed a computer science course, and all students were required to purchase a computer. Second, the size of the sample was quite small. Finally, the study measures student perceptions about helpfulness without a measure of whether the concurrent enrollment produced performance differences. Performance on the cases was not considered a suitable criterion for this study because the analysis of the results of the calculations was the predominant grading criterion.
Discussion and Conclusions
This study provides information concerning two dimensions of introducing computers into the curriculum. First, the study suggests concurrent enrollment in an accounting course and a course teaching computer use may induce students to use computers on accounting projects. Second, this study indicates a positive reaction to computer use as students regarded concurrent enrollment as helpful in learning accounting. These results differ from other research that found negative reactions to computer use after students used them in accounting courses. These results, when considered in conjunction with other similar research, suggest that a more fruitful approach to integrating computers into the accounting curriculum may be to focus on providing computer skills that would eliminate manual solutions for complex, time consuming accounting problems. This could be done through joint enrollment in an accounting course and a computer course that developed proficiency in using spreadsheets.
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