Documentary maker offers online accounting course

Kelly Richmond Pope, a documentary filmmaker and accounting professor at DePaul University in Chicago, wants to transform the way accounting is taught.

She recently began teaching an Intro to Financial Accounting online course on The college-level, for-credit course uses some of the lessons from her 2017 documentary, All the Queen’s Horses, about a $53 million embezzlement case in Illinois as a way to teach students in a more engaging way about the fundamentals of accounting. The course is presented by, a company led by Aaron Rasmussen, one of the co-founders of the online learning service, MasterClass, which enjoyed a boom in popularity in 2020 with so many people stuck at home during the pandemic.

Amid a decline in recent years in the number of students entering the accounting profession and taking the CPA Exam, Pope believes part of the solution may lie in making accounting a more interesting subject to study. She wants to do that by combining the skills of a documentary filmmaker and educator.

“It’s concerning for sure,” she said. “Part of the problem is we don’t show learners the exciting parts of accounting, and we have to have a more engaging approach to introduce this dynamic profession to people. If we have a shortage of accountants, that’s a problem because the backbone of our economy is business — small, medium and large — so there is a need for accountants in every aspect of the way our economy functions. I think what we need to do is showcase how dynamic the field is and how important the field is, not just rules and regulations to pass the CPA Exam. We have to take a different approach.”

Kelly Richmond Pope

The course uses some of the gamified approach that Pope employed in a previous course last year for Surgent IQ called Red Flag Mania that taught fraud detection skills through a whodunit-solving type of detective story format (see story).

“The Intro to Financial Accounting course blends engaging, beautiful-looking content with theory and story, and those are the things I’ve been passionate about for so long,” said Pope. “The idea of storytelling, gaming and active learning all fall under that same umbrella. This is just more in line with how I think courses should be developed and delivered.”

Students find such courses more engaging than the type of online courses they’re probably used to seeing. “We need to stop having a distinction between how we consume information personally vs. professionally,” said Pope. “If you think about it, why do we see so many streaming services? Why do we see so many documentary series on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu? It’s because that’s what we really enjoy. We enjoy stories and content like that. If you can figure out a way to merge that into the way we learn, it’s a win-win situation for all. One of the things we need is to really take that blend and infuse it into the classroom even more. There is such a need for innovation in education.”

The pandemic forced many students into a remote learning environment for the first time, but the results weren’t encouraging for many students and their parents, prompting demands for a return to the classroom.

“If anything, what we’ve learned during the pandemic is that online teaching is not just opening up your Zoom or Teams and just talking,” said Pope. “That is not online learning, although that was how a lot of us made it through the pandemic. It really takes a significant investment to create a robust course.”

The American Institute of CPAs and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy have been collaborating on a CPA Evolution initiative to bring more current technology skills into the CPA profession and the CPA Exam, while the Institute of Management Accountants has also created a Management Accounting Competency Framework to encourage more learning of skills that are in demand for accountants working at companies today.

“We as educators and all of those organizations have the same responsibility, and that is to make students competitive,” said Pope. “I look at the CPA Evolution model as attempting to do that. We have to evolve. We have to make sure that our skills stay current. We can’t think that we’re going to grow the profession and attract more people by doing the same thing.”

Pope has been hearing positive feedback on the course from users, including one who wrote a message on Instagram telling her, “OMG, I’m watching the first video of my Outlier Intro to Financial Accounting course, and I almost cried. It’s amazing to be taught a challenging subject by someone who looks like me. I can’t wait to apply what you teach me toward my growing business, and we share a love of studying following accounting fraud and white collar crimes. I’m in heaven. Thank you, Dr. Kelly Richmond Pope. This is one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever given myself.”

Pope is elated to receive comments like those. “You wouldn’t imagine that we would be talking about an accounting course,” she said. “I think that speaks to the integration of accounting theory, storytelling and beautiful cinematography. This is the way we build back that interest in the accounting field.”

One of the drawbacks for some accounting students is the starting salaries for young accountants, as opposed to some other fields in the tech industry, as well as stories about the long hours, especially during a busy tax season.

“I think there’s a lot more competition of fields,” said Pope. “There are a lot more dynamic fields that we might not have been competing with five, 10 or 15 years ago. Students have changed. Companies have changed. The way we work has forever changed. You think about public accounting and the whole concept of busy season, that’s not attractive to a lot of people. That’s not perhaps a characteristic that many Gen Z’s are attracted to, to tell them you need to work seven days a week during this period of time with no integration of work-life blend. Whereas you have all these other fields that take into account work-life blend, mental health, family commitments. The way we work and the way students look at job opportunities is very different than it was 10 years ago. It’s not just money, I don’t think that we can completely pay our way out of this. It’s the way we work as well.”

Students may also find it more exciting to learn about fraud detection and forensic accounting.

“One of the issues that I try to not do is teach in a very siloed approach,” said Pope. “I teach managerial accounting and financial accounting, but to think that we don’t need to understand the importance of internal controls to prevent fraud, to think that should only be in an auditing course or a forensic accounting course is a detriment to what we’re doing with our students. It should be integrated throughout all of our courses. What I try to do with the Introduction to Financial Accounting course is really show that integration as much as I can. Knowing accounting is a life skill. At the end of every day, one of the things that’s most important to you is how much money you have or how much money your business has made or how valuable your stock or your investments are. Being able to read and understand financial reports and ask important questions is a life skill. When we see the numbers decline in our field that can help people and companies protect their organizations, it’s a concern. Hopefully we can get ahead of this hiring crisis before it becomes completely hard to turn around.”

She hopes to interest more young people in the accounting profession, including within her family. “One of the things I tell my high school son is you should consider accounting as a major,” said Pope. “It’s a good foundation. Who knows what he’ll do? But one of the things that I plan to do this summer is have him take the Intro to Financial Accounting course, the course I created, so he can learn early at the high school level about accounting.”

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