The impact of the virtual university on accounting and business education

A new publication explores the rapidly expanding relationship between technology and education delivery and the impact for business and accounting education.

The Virtual University: Impact on Australian Accounting and Business Education, is co-edited by Assoc. Prof. Elaine Evans and Prof. James Guthrie from Macquarie University, with Prof. Roger Burritt from the University of South Australia.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Produced by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia in conjunction with the University of South Australia’s Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability (CAGS), the text explores the many opportunities and challenges for tertiary educators bought on by this evolving education environment.

The text investigates how technological advances and the rise of online education offerings, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), are changing the higher education landscape. In a series of papers by practitioners and academics, the potential impact of this transformation on business and accounting education is explored.

Currently over three million students globally are taking part in MOOCs. As Prof. Guthrie observes on his blog, the access that MOOCs provide have the potential to make future generations more educated than any previous generation, but they also bring many challenges, including high attrition rates and concerns over quality of learning outcomes.

The papers are designed to stimulate discussion around how traditional universities can adapt to the changing market and develop strategies that ultimately create the best possible outcomes for students and professions.

In their introduction to the publication, Guthrie, Burritt and Evans discuss the competitive threat that MOOCs pose to the traditional higher education model of university, with its bricks and mortar. This threat is currently restricted because MOOCs do not offer qualifications, course majors or an on-campus student experience. Nevertheless this could change rapidly, and business schools and accounting departments need to incorporate technology into teaching as part of a blended learning approach.

The issues facing business and accounting education include: the quality of learning outcomes in both a blended learning and MOOC environment; public scrutiny over student qualifications; and the lack of a campus experience for students who want to enter a profession which requires graduate capabilities such as communication skills.

Guthrie, Burritt and Evans conclude that, despite the number of challenges that face a virtual university, accounting and business educators and the accounting profession will have abundant opportunities to collaborate over issues such as credentialing of future business professionals; the quality of blended learning experiences for students; and the production of quality, interactive teaching and learning resources.

Four ideas for improving Integrated Reporting

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) recently completed the consultation period for its draft version of the International Integrated Reporting (<IR>) framework, with <IR> ‘Version 1’ to be released in December. IGAP researchers Dr Dale Tweedie and Prof. Nonna Martinov-Bennie raised four ideas for the IIRC to consider in its revisions.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????1. Clarifying the relationship between <IR> and other reporting systems

The IIRC’s ‘value-creation’ approach to non-financial reporting is very different from the ‘impact-assessment’ approach used by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Users of <IR> would benefit from greater guidance on how <IR> and GRI4 can be complementary in a practical reporting context; for example, by clarifying differences in the materiality determination processes of <IR> and GRI4 and which – if any – takes precedence.

2. Acknowledge and address stakeholder conflicts

The IIRC’s view that the interests of providers of financial capital – the primary audience of <IR> – and other stakeholders will align over the long term overlooks potential conflicts between these groups, and so how conflicts should be reported. An example in Australia is coal seam gas (CSG) exploration, which promises significant financial benefits to mining and energy organisations, but which other stakeholders have claimed is a long-term risk (e.g. to primary production and water supply). Given this perceived conflict, what should be reported by organisations engaged in CSG exploration? Further clarity on the ‘legitimate needs, interest and expectations’ of other stakeholders that an <IR> should acknowledge would help address these kinds of issues.

3. Increase comparability through a stronger ‘core’

As our earlier blog discussed, while a principles-based framework is a useful method of avoiding boiler-plate disclosures, <IR>s need sufficient commonalities to be comparable over time and between organisations. Providing a stronger ‘core’ of reporting requirements and methods, best practice guidance (e.g. on carbon reporting) and definitions of key terms could encourage comparability without sacrificing the principles-based approach.

4. Governance as accountability

The draft <IR> framework asks each organisation to explain how its ‘governance structure support[s] its ability to create value in the short, medium and long term’. While good governance is part of value creation, the key features of governance are accountability, transparency and ethics, which are fundamental to ensuring that the value that organisations create is managed and distributed in appropriate ways. Following the King Reports in South Africa, <IR> could play a greater role in emphasising and communicating the importance of these aspects of governance. 

Telework to ‘Anywhere Working’: The Next Steps

As reported in the Australian Financial Review, a key theme emerging from the recent Digital Productivity in the Workplace of the Future Conference, sponsored by Macquarie University and CSIRO, was that the conversation is moving on from ‘telework’ from a home office to ‘anywhere working’. Increasingly we will see employees working from locations such as a café, a partner’s, supplier’s or customer’s premises, a smart work centre, a co-working centre, from home, a car, an airport lounge or anywhere that is conducive to achieving the outcomes and levels of productivity required to achieve organisational strategic objectives.

On the latest statistics, around six percent of Australian workers have formal anywhere working arrangements. The statistics on informal arrangements for working from anywhere are more difficult to ascertain. This is an important area for research because workers with informal anywhere working arrangements typically have more autonomy to complete ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????their tasks and projects, and so this is where we are more likely to see productivity gains.

Clearly not all organisations see anywhere working as an effective strategy, and prefer their employees to work from an office.  Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, famously (or infamously) banned all work from home arrangements early this year. Ms Mayer argued that innovation and creativity only occurred when people were together. Yahoo are not alone. Google publically stated that their organisation did not condone working from home.

However, several developments may mitigate the limitations of working from home that Yahoo and others have cited. Co-working or collaborative working spaces are providing opportunities for freelancers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and connect. Hub Australia has hubs in Melbourne and Sydney with another to open in Adelaide later in the ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????year.  Fishburners is a co-working space for technology start-ups and has two locations in central Sydney.

Smart work centres (SWCs) provide an alternative for those employees who are unable to work from home for a variety of reasons including social isolation and lack of space. Employers may be more open to employees working from SWCs because these centres can address issues that arise when working from home such as work, health and safety and difficulties in managing remote employees. A sustainable business model will be critical for the success of SWCs, which is another key area for future research.

A second key theme emerging from the conference was the perceived lack of management and leadership for anywhere working employees. Job design should include autonomy so that employees are able to be productive without the constraints of ‘presenteeism’ (being seen in the office). As Dr Blount from Macquarie University discussed on Sky News, management are unclear about how to develop a business case for anywhere working, and are unsure about the skills required to manage workers who are not office-based. While many employers have the HR policies in place for anywhere working, management resistance is an ongoing barrier to an increased uptake of working more flexibly. Alan Dormer – research leader at the CSIRO’s Government and Commercial Services division – has used research from the The Economist to argue that the reluctance of management to devolve responsibility might be preventing significant gains in both worker productivity and well-being.

The Australian Anywhere Working Research Network – which aims to provide a framework for collaborative research on anywhere working – invites any researchers, employers or government representatives interested in this field to join. To become involved, please contact Dr Yvette Blount in the Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance at Macquarie University.