Due to the effects of the worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, accounting professors have been forced to navigate the complexities of teaching in a nontraditional format during this spring 2020 semester. Historically, some faculty would reject the very notion that accounting could ever be taught effectively outside a live classroom setting, but to comply with quarantine and social distancing guidelines, traditional courses abruptly and unexpectedly transitioned to online offerings midsemester. Accounting faculty no longer have the luxury of pondering whether classes can or should be taught online; for the immediate future, there is no other option.

Professors and students alike are feeling the impact of this transition. Although technology has provided a way to stave off school interruptions and closures, there have been unexpected issues. Seasoned professors may feel like novice instructors when undergoing training on the technology needed to teach online. They must rapidly adapt proven teaching techniques to a virtual class setting in a manner that bridges the gap between instructor and student. Further complicating the transition is the fact that, even if comfortable with the technology, some students feel anxious about the independent nature of online offerings.

In light of the above, it is interesting that there is no uniformity regarding formats for online learning. Colleges and universities are recommending synchronous offerings (i.e., to every student in the class at once), asynchronous offerings, or blended versions of both. The crisis has highlighted the lack of agreement that exists regarding best practices in this new area.

Synchronous Offerings

Most institutions provide technology that makes it possible for faculty and students to meet for virtual classes in real time. For instance, a course with an assigned time may use that time slot for online meetings using Zoom or other teleconferencing software. Faculty members, as online meeting facilitators, can be heard and seen, while students, as participants, can also be seen and heard or can opt solely to listen and comment through a written chat on the virtual classroom screen. Faculty and students both need to adjust to a “virtual” dialogue, which may put a damper on the spontaneity of class interaction.

Interaction has become an emerging issue and is still evolving in the online learning environment. Many students, if given the choice, may prefer to attend a virtual session without being seen or heard, claiming that they are looking “too comfortable” to be seen by their classmates and instructor. On the other hand, faculty may require that students be seen, as some professors feel the need to observe students and their reactions in real time in order to have a meaningful class. Other faculty may be comfortable lecturing without this immediate feedback. The immediate challenge is being able to reconcile the different expectations held by faculty and students regarding interaction in an online setting.

Asynchronous Offerings

Some institutions are encouraging faculty to shift to asynchronous offerings, which generally means a curriculum with online assignments, prerecorded lectures, and other assessments as opposed to real time synchronous sessions. Fully online classes are generally not assigned a class time, which may make an attempt to schedule a synchronous session futile given the inevitability of schedule conflicts.

For asynchronous offerings, faculty may record their lectures and post these videos or post PowerPoint files that include class notes with audio lectures interposed. Students can post their research and presentations on interactive forums for classmates to view and reflect upon in order to promote collaborative learning, a major goal of online instruction.

Rewind and Replay

Online accounting courses may be more in sync with the learning styles of younger generations. As a result of texting and streaming video, students are accustomed to having the ability to “rewind and replay” if something is missed; as such, they have the mindset of being able to follow up at will. Taped lectures and audio PowerPoints give students this option to rewind and replay, and thus may provide a more advantageous learning experience for some students.

The transition to online learning may compound some of the issues that academics have struggled with in recent years, such as unique learning styles of different students. The questions surrounding the new learning environment highlight this debate. For example, professors tend to write class notes in script, which is an obsolete style for younger students. The physical writing of notes, however, has been viewed pedagogically as an important part of the learning process. Many modern students now forego the note-taking practice and substitute it with picture taking from a mobile device camera. The online environment lends itself more to their preferences.

As the needs of students evolve, perceptions regarding online learning must also evolve. There are techniques and pedagogy to assist educators in teaching accounting online despite the complexity and application of the material.

The Future Is Here

In the wake of COVID-19, academia has been thrust into an unanticipated period of transition. Moving forward, how the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the future of academia remains to be seen. Perhaps this crisis will provide the impetus needed to investigate best practices and to explore more effective teaching techniques to better serve students.

Tracey J. Niemotko, JD, CPA, CFE, is a professor of accounting at Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, N.Y.
Moira Tolan, PhD, is a professor of business at Mount Saint Mary College.