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Transcript: Interview With Jill Mitchell

June 11, 2020

In our latest episode, Maureen talks with Jill Mitchell, professor at Northern Virginia Community College and adjunct professor at George Mason University, about designing an engaging virtual learning environment and using a student-first approach to teaching. Listen to the full podcast here.


Maureen: Hey everyone. Welcome to Leading Forward the Virginia Society of CPAs podcast, where we focus on innovation and technology. I'm your host, Maureen Dingus. And I invite thought leaders to talk about all things important to the CPA profession on these episodes. We'll turn our eyes to higher education and learning. Enjoy. All right, well welcome everyone. On today's episode, we are talking with Jill Mitchell. She is a professor at Northern Virginia Community College and also an adjunct professor at George Mason University. Jill has served on the VSCPA Board of Directors. She is very engaged in all of the ways that we talk to students and encouraging them to be a CPA. So she's been really, really a great advocate for the profession and for the students in Virginia. So welcome Jill.

Jill: Thank you so much, Maureen. I am so delighted to be here with you today, and I just first want to say thank you to you, the society, and especially Molly Wash for all that you all do for accounting education for faculty, and most importantly for our students.

Maureen: Oh, well, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. Jill, you have a very interesting pathway to get to where you are today. So I'd love to hear a little bit about your leadership journey.

Jill: Sure, sure. Yeah. So interestingly enough, I did not start off in college as an accounting major. I started off as a dance major and an injury led me to change my major to management information systems and signed with a big large firm. And this was at the time we were going through the big internet bubble and they rescinded the job offer. And so this actually opened my door to accounting at Ernst and Young had a program at the time called your master plan that was looking for non-accounting majors to bring some diversity to the firm. And so I ended up getting my master's degree in accounting at the University of Virginia through your master plan. So I started my career at EY in the Miami office and transitioned over to business risk services and started really doing a lot of internal audit consulting.

This was the time of SOX. So it was just a really energetic time I think for firms. And so that was where I started my career. And then I, my husband's was in the coast guard officer in the coast guard. We got stationed up here in DC, had our son and I was staying home and thought it would be good. Stay at home mom and realized I was not a good state home mom. And so I went to Nova just to get out of the house to be able to teach at night. And I met another accounting professor who said, Hey, we have a full time open. He kind of had the same background as me, big for young children and said, this is a great lifestyle. And so I did it and applied and became a full-time professor there. And I've never looked back. I mean, it really was one of the best decisions I've made in my career because it's the best of both worlds. I'm really able to stay connected to the accounting profession but have the opportunity to really influence lives in my students and get them to open their eyes, to consider careers in accounting. And so I've been a professor now for over 12 years and it's just such a meaningful role that I have. I, like I said to really make a difference in someone's life every day.

Maureen: Well then, well, that, that, that's amazing. I know that a lot of our members have once they've tried or experienced teaching, they really have I would say universally have come to really appreciate that role. And I know that more and more we're going to be needing new faculty with retirement's looming and just the changing skill sets needed changing technology. So maybe some of our listeners out there will consider, consider that in their future at some point.

Jill: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we rely on our adjunct professors so much both at Nova and at George Mason University where I'm an adjunct and the experience that current professionals retired professionals can bring to the classroom is remarkable. And, you know, I'm, I really am a part. I mean, the VSCPA is a partner for me in the classroom. And so the fact that we could work with the CPA to help hopefully attract some professionals, more professionals into our classroom, I think is only a win, win situation. Not just for what I think a CPA might get out of that experience of being a teacher. But like I said, it really brings a lot of valuable experience to the classroom for our students.

Maureen: Yeah. Yeah. So to dive into our topic today, it's, it's kind of a it's a very relevant topic that we had planned to touch base on, but the idea of virtual learning, and I know you have a lot of expertise in that area, but our universities our public you know, lower level Mmm. Learning areas or excuse me, our schools are having to really flip where they're going with learning and try to experiment with virtual learning. Some successful, some not as successful CPAs are still needing to learn while maybe they're sheltering in place. So this virtual learning has become on top of mind for so many people. I you'll be speaking at our accounting educators exchange in June on this topic. So I'm wanting to hear from you about what are some maybe best practices or ways that people can start designing classes that will be the most effective.

Jill: Sure, sure. Yeah. And, you know, I embraced virtual learning really early, as soon as I transitioned over to higher ed at, you know, when I started, I, when I was in school, we really didn't have the learning management systems or robust systems like that. And so when I returned to higher ed to teach, I thought, wow. I mean, the fact that all of this information is available to students is it's fantastic. So I've been teaching online. I'm also designing hybrid courses for a while now and so much so that I returned to grad school at George Mason to get a master's in instructional design technology. And it's very interesting in returning to school, obviously, I was studying educational theory and knew all of these new technologies. But I learned the most from being a student in the online course. So most of my classes were online.

There were some that were hybrid in some face to face on-site, but I just being a student in an online course really helped me understand what works, what doesn't, and what's really critical to a course design. So when I'm designing a virtual learning course, I really look focused on kind of five areas. And I use the acronym cause I love acronyms for my students. When, you know, everyone knows that when you studied for the CPA exam or any professional exam, those acronyms can really help or the mnemonics. So I came up with the ocean and I think about outcomes, communication, engagement, assessment, and navigation. And so I think whenever you're sitting down to design a course, or if you're right now in a transition where you're moving your course from a face to face environment to the virtual environment, the first thing we really want to focus on first and foremost, are the students always putting the students first. And I put my student at the center of every learning design choice that I make, what is best for the students. And right now in the environment that we're in, I think it's even more critical whether you're teaching a course for a college or even doing a CP course, letting the learners know that their wellbeing is most important is what's critical contents important.

Maureen: Why don't we just pause on that point? So that's really interesting. What would be an example of what is best for the student versus what would be best maybe for the, the professor or best for the school? What, what's an example of that?

Jill: That, yeah, that's a great question. Because sometimes when I'm evaluating technologies, I hear a lot of professors say, well, this doesn't work for me on my end. You know, this is complicated. Whenever I'm evaluating a technology, I always try to understand what is the best experience learning experience for the student. So I think as a course designer or a teacher or a leader of training, thinking about w what is that student experience? That's why I think it's so valuable if you are in any type of training role to be a student first in that environment. So you could see what works and, and I'm really focusing on the user experience. So what might be best for the teacher to have courses, you know, synchronous at a certain time each week might not be what's best for your learner. I, in this transition right now, the very first thing that I did was I surveyed my students. I, I needed to know, do they have the technology to come to class at a certain time? I do. They have a webcam? Are they going to be doing all of their work on a phone? If they're going to be working on a phone versus a laptop, that's going to totally change how I design the course. So putting the learner first, really understanding that the learners needs in terms of your technology, your scheduling, how you're going to communicate, how you're going to deliver content is, is critical.

Maureen: Do, do some people take classes on a phone,

Jill: Some might, that might be the only technology that they have. And I've been really in, again, in this whole transition, since the pandemic started, I've been really active on Twitter and learning a lot from faculty and hearing that many of their students, when they go home, they don't have those devices that they might have on campus. So I was fortunate, my students that I surveyed all had either a laptop or a tablet. So that allowed me to design my course in a way that they could access the material that way. But again, if it was going to be on their phones, I was going to do a, some, you know, my course design was going to take a different path. Right? Yup. Yup.

Maureen: All right. So we have the what, what, what's the next one?

Jill: The first one is outcomes. So focused on outcomes. There's a theory called backward design. So you start with, what do you want your learner to have attained by the end of this? Whether it's a session or a full course, and then you work backward to design your course from there. So a lot of times we'll just set out to say, okay, we're going to teach all of this content without really thinking critically about what do we want our learners? What do we want them to walk out with? What are the key points? And if you focus your design that way, it really helps you kind of narrow in on what's important. And I know through the years in teaching, you know, you, you want to teach them every possible thing. I teach intro accounting. So there's so many details, but at the end of the day, when my students leave an intro accounting course, I want them to understand the value of accounting, whether they're going to major in accounting or not the value of the financial statements.

Jill: I want them to solidly know the financial statements, how they're used in business decisions. If they forget how to do a journal entry, you know? Okay. But the fact that they know the main financial statements where to access them and their importance right into business decision making. So starting with the outcomes is really critical. Next item is communication. How do you plan to communicate with your learners? Like what technology is appropriate in the virtual environment? So are you using a learning management system? Are you just going to do email? I've been taught, doing a lot of webinars recently, and you know, I've told faculty who aren't comfortable with technology, that you can deliver courses and engage with your students through email, if you do it properly. So identifying like what's the best technology for communication. There was so much out there, right, right now we're using Zoom, texting your students, there's tools for privacy, you know, and again, when I talk about technology, we have to also in higher ed K-12 always keep in mind privacy issues as well.

So that's something to keep in the background there and then engagement. So how do you want to engage your learners? And this is where I really put my students at the center and I think about how do they want to engage with the content? So the actual material, how do they want to engage with their peers? Peer instruction is so critical. And then how do they engage with me as the instructor? In terms of engaging with content, there's, there are so many great resources available from our profession that I really lean on from. And I'll say the via CPA first I love, love, love the, my path to CPA video series that you all did. I'm of course, partial to them. Cause two of my students got to do the interviews, but, but what's great about those videos is you, you were able to look at different paths that CPA's took, maybe not the traditional path and you engage the students.

And so I use those in my classroom to get my students to learn what a CPA does. So that's one way my students engage with the content is we're relying on resources that the CPA, the AI CPA does a great virtual field trip series. The Center for Audit Quality has a great series out now called discover audit. I've actually started using that at the very beginning of a semester to introduce students because they come into accounting with these preconceived notions of, they just sit at a desk all day. My students legitimately tell me that, and then they have this amazing video to watch where they're like, wow, these guys are traveling and they're working in teams. And so so many great resources. So thinking again about that engagement piece, how do you get them to engage with the content, engage with their peer's instruction. We use a tool called think pair, share, present a question to the group, to the students. They think about it individually, and then you pair them up and you can do that virtually. So zoom has this breakout room feature. So I started doing that and I, and my students are more comfortable in the breakout rooms talking in a small group than in front of a, maybe an intimidating large group.

Maureen: Yeah. Yeah. We're actually going to be experimenting with the rooms with our members. So I think that because we have learned that the peer instruction is, or the peer sharing and learning is so important at all levels, you know, at the professional level, especially that we're, we're really trying to figure out the best way to do that in the virtual world. So I'm glad that you've had success with that. And in fact that they, they do engage.

Jill: Yeah. And, and honestly like that is one of the best components of the Educators' Exchange is that time that we have to break out. And I know the task force has done just an incredible job of really being intentional about the time that's spent at the educators exchange. And, you know, we used to kind of just have lunch for free, but now everybody kind of went off, which is great, you know, those spontaneous conversations, but now we have these breakout sessions. And so I look forward to the virtual educator's exchange this year and maybe using those breakout rooms of getting together instructors who teach introductory accounting, the ones who teach intermediate common issues and using the technology to, to facilitate that peer instruction. Right, right. Great, great, great. So the next one, that outcomes, communication engagement that I just focus on and then assessment. So assessment in higher ed is critical assessment in the accounting for the curriculum is even more critical.

So I always say that honor in the classroom is a top priority. I an intro accounting, and really trying to teach my students the importance of integrity as they enter a profession that's grounded in integrity. And so assessment in the virtual environment can be challenging. I know, again, recently what I'm hearing from instructors is that's their biggest area of concern. And so we have to kind of be creative and rethink how we assess in this environment. There's obviously technology out there to Proctor students that come with a cost, not just a financial cost, but some security concerns as well. There are ways to design assessment that allows you to give every student a different assessment experience in terms of, you know, not every student's getting the same question algorithmic problems, things like that. So I think in this time in virtual learning, we just have to be creative of how we're going to assess our students. Cause we can't just do away with that. We, if we're going to be giving them credit, we need to be careful about that.

Maureen: Right. And that sounds like there might be a place where there's still some room to grow or figuring out for the, maybe the new th the person that's just diving into virtual learning that might be maybe a sticking point.

Jill: Yeah. You know what I mean? It's not as easy as just putting a few questions on a piece of paper, copying it and handing it out in class. It becomes a lot more technical than that. And that's where, you know, really understanding assessment and design is going to be important. And so I think we really do need to help those faculty or who aren't as comfortable with that technology there. And what's great too, is we can share with the technology. So if you know, the faculty are collaborating, we can share this. It's not like everyone's out there working individually, right? Yeah. So, and then finally just navigation. So where if you just teach on campus, face-to-face you, you know, you put your syllabus together, but you come to class every day with an agenda and you kind of go from there. But NAB creating a, a navigational tool in that online environment is so important.

And so I, I always give my students, my online students, a video orientation to help them and where I explain, how are they going to navigate this course? There's a lot of different approaches that you can take where it's very instructor led. You could do self-paced learning. And so, again, it kind of goes back to what I said at first, you have to focus on your student, understand your learner. So where CPE training, you know, self-paced learning is appropriate in the higher ed setting, students might need a little more guidance, a little bit more instruction in terms of, okay, here's a calendar that we should, we should follow to keep us on track. So navigating the courses is really critical. So these are again, kind of the five kind of themes to keep in mind, I think, in virtual learning and in order to create a really meaningful learning experience. So our learners and instructors are not getting frustrated.

Maureen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So this is a, the University level college level, but obviously we have lifelong learners in the profession and how should learners maybe assess what I'm learning that they want to invest their time in, or how confirms even look at designing some programs. So I'm just trying to figure out how do our members maybe apply this at large.

Jill: Yeah. Great, great question. Yeah. I, you know, one of them, I do a lot of presentations on the future of work, preparing my students for the future of work. And I think one really important aspect of any learning experience is reflection. And I, it's something I instill in my students again, I try to teach my students how to learn, give them good advice in terms of study skills, because if they're going to enter the profession, they need to have that. And so we reflect at the end of each class session, we all take two minutes to say, what did we learn? What's still fuzzy for us. And I think that is a really key component of learning that professionals can use. So when you take a CPE training after it's all said and done, okay, great, you've gotten the credit, but an independent learner, a lifelong learner takes that time to reflect on that experience.

Was that a positive experience? What were the outcomes? Did I, you know, we all have to do the survey at the end to get the CPE credit, but really being more intentional about that and taking that seriously and saying, what did I learn? What, what was the value of this experience that my firm offered compared to this other experience that I had with the CPA? And I think that we forget that we get so busy and I'm just making sure we get the credit and get out there, right. That we don't take that time to reflect. So I think reflection is a really important aspect. And I think as firms, as a set society, associations offer CPE kind of building that in is going to be really critical as we move more to this virtual environment.

Maureen: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, Jill I know you have a lot on your plate today and I really, really appreciate you spending some time with us. It's been short, but you've provided a lot of information, a lot of food for thought and look forward to having you at the accounting educator exchange. But before, before we sign off I'd love to hear a little bit about you on the personal side. What are you doing during this academic, or even just, in general, to relax and stay stressed or not be, but just be focused on what you need to do.

Jill: Sure, sure. So so I, I live in a very small house in Arlington with my husband and a teenage son and two dogs. So they have all left the house. So I could do this podcast because it gets rather noisy at times. I have definitely brought my dogs into the zoom class meetings with my students. So they all know the dogs for short cause can always get them out of the house. But I, yeah, we've actually got into a routine. My husband and I were just saying that we, we were pleasantly surprised how long, like good we, how well we're getting along. We thought for sure that we were going to have to work till we were 90. Cause we wouldn't survive retirement together, but this is looking positive for us. So I have again, a son, a teenage son who he's doing his online school and he's big, we're big NASCAR fans.

So we're totally missing, you know, Richmond and Martinsville, which we had planned to go to for mother's day this year. But so he does a online iRacing and we had gotten him a racing rig with a seat. We own everything for Christmas. So it worked out really well. So he's down there doing that and we get to watch him, he joined a league, so we watch him on YouTube. So that's been kind of fun. But obviously we've been just trying to do more walks together as a way to get out. But I, you know, as I tell my students really the highlight of my week is knowing on Mondays and Wednesdays, that time that I get to see them and interact with them, that is the highlight of my week. Right, good. It gives me a reason to get dressed and just feel a sense of purpose. And, and I do like that synchronous time together with my students. So that's what we've been doing,

Maureen: You know, it's, it's interesting, you mentioned the racing and I think that this is going to be with e-sports really just has their moment. Right?

Jill: Absolutely. And, and, you know, they're actually showing these, this iRacing on Sundays, I've been sharing it with my students. I was like, Hey, anyone that's missing real, real, real sports. They're broadcasting it with professional drivers. And it has been interesting. And you know, a lot of colleges have an eSports league. We do, we have one at Nova. I keep telling them, Hey, you got to get the iRacing on there. But I do think that this is an opportunity and what a great opportunity for the sponsors, you know, those businesses that will still get some exposure during this time as we, you know, shift over to the eSports and they're still getting some of that exposure. So I think that's great for business too.

Maureen: Yeah. It's just another example of how the world will be different that we just never expected. So with the eSports and the sponsors and everyone just trying to figure out how do we move forward from this? I think we'll, we'll have some changes that we may have not anticipated. That might be,

Jill: Yeah, I know. I'm like, well, my whole lighter side. Right, right, right. And I, my husband and I got a groceries essentials package from a restaurant last night, and I said, you know, a month ago, would you ever imagine that this restaurant that we eat at, we're going to pick up eggs, toilet, paper, and paper towels from it's just so it's interesting to really think about what life's going to be like after all,

Maureen: For sure. Well, Jill again, thank you. Good luck to your students and the rest of the semester and best wishes for your family surviving quarantine. So thank you so much.

Jill: Thanks Maureen, for having me. I really appreciate it.