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Learning with Documentaries

By Kelly Richmond Pope, Ph.D., CPA, and Omar Roubi, CPA
August 1, 2022

Documentaries provide an engaging, entertaining way to introduce students to accounting and auditing concepts.

 

Students are increasingly losing interest in the traditional teaching methods that rely on textbooks, PDF cases, and end-of-chapter exercises. With greater access to technology and information, it’s possible to create more immersive learning experiences that will resonate with students. Documentaries offer an engaging way to present otherwise static information in an interesting and easy-to-understand format.

 

The amount of time students spend consuming information through alternative means is rising every year. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, approximately 95% of college students have a smartphone or laptop. As of 2017, 61% of adults aged 18 to 29 got their information through streaming services and online channels, mostly through their cell phones. Streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime are among the most popular ways these adults consume entertainment as well as learn new skills and obtain information.

 

In order to educate students in new and innovative ways, educators must utilize resources other than textbooks to meet the needs of today’s accounting students. Accounting education can be greatly enhanced by incorporating multimedia and edutainment as a teaching pedagogy to appeal to today’s learner.

 

MULTIMEDIA LEARNING

 

Combining education with entertainment has existed for hundreds of years. For example, Poor Richard’s Almanack demonstrates early implementation of “edutainment” in colonial America, with Benjamin Franklin combining entertaining and educational content such as puzzles and rules of conduct into an instructional entity for colonists. The term “edutainment” was introduced by Walt Disney in 1954 to describe the award-winning True-Life Adventures documentaries, which comprised a series of short and full-length nature documentary films released by Disney between 1948 and 1960. Popular television series, such as Schoolhouse Rock! and Sesame Street, combine music and video to teach topics such as math, science, and history. In today’s classroom, documentary films are an example of edutainment that can be used to innovate the curriculum.

 

Richard Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning supports the theory that utilizing a documentary is an effective way of teaching. The premise of Mayer’s theory is that students learn more effectively from pictures and words as opposed to just words. According to Mayer, the brain takes in information and processes it in multiple channels: one for the visual material and one for the auditory-presented material. In “Aids to computer-based multimedia learning,” Mayer and Roxana Moreno wrote, “When words and pictures are presented, the learner is more likely to build verbal and visual representations and to make connections between them. Research on multimedia aids demonstrates that multimedia presentations can result in deeper understanding than single medium presentations” (Learning and Instruction, February 2002).

 

A documentary accomplishes all of the above. The multiple-channel presentation with words and pictures is effective in teaching students, and the format relies on a means of information consumption they typically use themselves. Additionally, documentaries often relate real-life examples to the course materials, making the approach much more effective than a traditional textbook and lecture approach to teaching.

 

Many streaming services that carry documentaries aren’t cost-inhibitive (YouTube streams much content for free, and Netflix costs start at $10.99 per month in the United States), so the incremental cost doesn’t cause course materials to be too expensive. This method of teaching takes into account all stakeholders involved in the learning process and delivers maximum value to students.

 

CASE EXAMPLE

 

One example that the two of us have personal experience with and which we believe is effective for use in accounting classes is the documentary All the Queen’s Horses. Kelly Richmond Pope, a professor of accounting at DePaul University, had been using movies and documentaries in classes for years but was always seeking a film that combined accounting, auditing, and fraud into one compelling story. Finding mixed results, she developed one herself, spending more than five years researching, writing, filming, directing, and producing All the Queen’s Horses.

 

Omar Roubi, an instructor of accounting at the University of Colorado Denver, first used All the Queen’s Horses in his junior-level cost accounting class and graduate-level MBA financial/managerial accounting course during the fall 2020 semester. Students watched the documentary and completed a short assignment asking certain accounting questions in relation to the topics addressed in the documentary.

 

All the Queen’s Horses explores how Rita Crundwell executed the largest municipal fraud in U.S. history. As the city comptroller and treasurer for Dixon, Ill., a town with a population of just 16,000, Crundwell stole more than $53 million of public funds during two decades in office. She used the funds to build one of the nation’s leading quarter-horse-breeding empires and threw lavish parties for community leaders at her home—all while the town endured cuts to public staff, emergency services budgets, and work on maintaining public infrastructure. After close-colleague-turned-whistleblower Kathe Swanson finally uncovered Crundwell’s scheme and alerted the mayor, the FBI arrested Crundwell in 2012.

 

 

In telling this story, the documentary allows students to apply theoretical concepts such as the fraud triangle and various ethical decision-making models to the characters directly associated with the fraud (see Table 1) as well as the residents and taxpayers of Dixon, Ill.

 

ACCOUNTING CONCEPTS FEATURED

 

All the Queen’s Horses uses the cognitive theory of multimedia learning to present and explain complex accounting issues throughout the documentary. Issues of independence, lack of internal controls/segregation of duties, whistleblowing, and professional skepticism are addressed. The use of testimonies from key personnel and citizens of Dixon, visual aids, and narration make it easier for students to understand these sometimes complex topics.

 

After his students completed their assignment, Roubi surveyed students in regard to the effectiveness of the documentary and how they accessed it. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most improved, 77.4% of student respondents rated their improvement of understanding of the identified accounting topics as either a 4 or a 5. This was due to the use of both words and pictures to express these topics in an audiovisual medium to which students are receptive. The documentary uses a variety of methods to touch on several important accounting topics.

 

Independence. Professional services firm CliftonLarsonAllen (CLA) performed both audit and nonattest services for Dixon, Ill. CLA staff should have shown a much higher level of independence since they were the ones preparing and auditing the city’s financials while also preparing Crundwell’s personal tax returns. Essentially, they were checking their own work, which creates several issues including lack of independence and conflict of interest.

 

CLA prepared Crundwell’s tax returns. It overlooked the fraudulent bank account she had set up to syphon funds from the city of Dixon, while also not questioning an income amount of $300,000 from an unknown source on her personal tax return. This raises questions of both skepticism and lack of independence for CLA.

 

The documentary points out how Crundwell had friends at CLA and would get together for gatherings. Though not illegal, it does raise the question of how independent CLA was of Crundwell’s financial interests. The documentary highlighted this lack of independence by showing a list of services that CLA engaged with Dixon, utilizing an excerpt from the engagement letter between CLA and Dixon.

 

Further emphasis on independence was addressed through the film’s narration and visuals that detailed CLA’s actions with Crundwell to that of a food critic. CLA not only prepared the financial statements for a food critic who prepared food at a restaurant and then wrote a review of the meal, but also audited the statements afterward. By presenting viewers with a more common example, and presenting it through visuals and narration, the film simplifies and illustrates the conflicts of interest that existed for CLA.

 

Lack of internal controls/segregation of duties. In her role, Crundwell approved vendors, made payments, and picked up mail. One feature of a good internal control system is segregation of duties. This was lacking in Dixon with respect to the city’s disbursement procedures.

 

Click to enlarge.

 

Throughout the documentary, the lack of internal controls and segregation of duties is constantly emphasized with multimedia learning tactics. Interviews are presented featuring people who worked with Crundwell, experts from public accounting, and academia. Hearing from different individuals emphasizes the lack of internal controls and how important it is to enabling fraud.

 

This use of multiple voices keeps students’ attention, allowing them to absorb the topic more easily. Specifically, an interview with Swanson recounted how Crundwell would write checks and cash them as soon as the money would come into the city’s bank accounts. This firsthand recounting makes it very easy for students to comprehend the severity of a lack of internal controls/not segregating cash-related duties.

 

Later in the documentary, all of Crundwell’s duties related to cash are presented in a visualization, with the narrator explaining how she was in charge of collecting mail, wrote checks, approved vendors, made deposits, and reconciled bank accounts. The visual presentation of the lack of segregation of duties helps the students conceptualize this topic and see how it can expose an entity to fraudulent activity.

 

Whistleblowing. Swanson is credited with discovering the $53.7 million fraud scheme. When she first discovered the scheme, she was concerned about what she should do with the information. The film discusses Swanson’s dilemma: Should she report her concerns or remain silent? Ultimately, Swanson reported the fraud to her supervisor, the city’s mayor at the time, the late Jim Burke. Students could analyze Swanson’s actions to the whistleblower’s triangle, which investigates the pressures, opportunities, and rationalization of one’s propensity to blow the whistle.

 

Professional skepticism. Professional skepticism is a major issue at the heart of Crundwell’s fraud, and the documentary presents this need for skepticism throughout the film.

 

Similar to the independence issue, it was reinforced through the use of interviews with many individuals. The constant references to Crundwell’s wealth by people interviewed, as well as how no one could explain where she got the money from, should enable students to question why people at City Hall weren’t questioning Crundwell’s finances, especially as the city was running at a deficit while neighboring towns were building up surpluses. The documentary emphasized this throughout by showing Crundwell’s assets, including her homes, horses, buses, and more.

 

Visualizations included a “city sign” that showed the populations and annual budgets of the two towns. The film then showed the surplus Sterling had at the same time showing the deficit Dixon was operating with. As these visuals are being shown, excerpts from a letter from Sterling to Dixon are being shown and explained in regard to the validity of Dixon’s financials and operations. This use of mixed media helps students crystallize the lack of skepticism from City Hall, which was a contributor to Crundwell being able to commit fraud. Another impactful example regarding the lack of professional skepticism involves drawn reenactments of depositions provided by CLA field auditors.

 

 

EFFECTIVE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

 

Documentaries can both enhance engagement and provide memorable teaching experiences. The storyline of All the Queen’s Horses ties to multiple accounting learning outcomes in introductory courses as well as auditing, ethics, and forensic accounting. Additionally, the film is easily accessible and offers closed captioning options for those who need it. More than 95% of respondents felt it was easy or very easy to access the documentary, and approximately 86% of respondents agree that a documentary is an effective tool in presenting accounting information.

 

The film is offered through multiple streaming platforms, which enhances accessibility. Approximately 74% of respondents accessed the documentary for free through YouTube, with another 21% accessing it through Amazon Prime.

 

Informal feedback from students identified the use of visual aids, narration, interviews with various characters, and use of a real-world story all helped improve their understanding of the accounting issues presented in the film. As more streaming providers continue to develop documentary films and docuseries, we hope that accounting educators will see this as a cost-effective way to introduce new content into the classroom.

 

Kelly Richmond Pope, Ph.D., CPA, is the Dr. Barry Jay Epstein Endowed Professor of Accounting at DePaul University and the IMA Research Fellow for Ethics and Corporate Governance. She can be reached at kpope2@depaul.edu.
Omar Roubi, CPA, is an instructor of accounting at the University of Colorado Denver. He can be reached at omar.roubi@ucdenver.edu.
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