When I learned that Dr. Alexandra Urban had recently completed her EdD (Doctorate in Education) while working full-time at Coursera, I wanted to know more. Alexandra graciously answered my questions about her graduate research, her work at Coursera, and her advice for others who hope follow a similar career path.
Q1: Tell us about your role at Coursera.
At Coursera, I’m a Senior Learning Designer on the Teaching and Learning team, focused on the content development process, improving the platform, and advancing pedagogy in line. I have a background in educational neuroscience, applying how the human brain learns to improve teaching environments. While during the day I work with universities to create high quality online degrees, I also recently completed a fully online degree as a student, where I conducted research to understand and better support learners in online STEM courses. My role at Coursera is to embed learning science research into our best practices to empower our partners and students.
One project I’m particularly proud of is how we were able to quantify the effects of various teaching strategies. For example, sometimes we think of practice quizzes as just extra work, both for the instructors to create and for the students, but on Coursera we can isolate the impact of different teaching methods and determine that the The inclusion of practice activities can lead to significant increases in learners’ course retention, skill development, and eventual career outcomes. See Coursera’s Quality Drivers report for more details.
Q2: You have just received your doctorate in education from Johns Hopkins University. What was your thesis and how does your research relate to your work at Coursera?
My thesis consisted of two primary research studies. The first aimed to better understand why women are less likely to stay in STEM MOOCs even after controlling for their lower systematic enrollment rates than their male peers. Then, combining this new knowledge with other findings from the research literature, I designed innovative brief interventions and tested them via a randomized controlled trial with the aim of closing the gender gap in completion. STEM courses.
The backbone of this work was to delve into research into what empowers women and learners from less affluent communities, particularly around boosting their intrinsic motivation. I am currently working on the synthesis of my thesis articles, which I hope to make publicly available in the coming months. Overview: The results were really promising, with several significant increases in female retention. I am also very happy that we are taking what we have learned and using it to further improve our product and our platform.
This work is especially crucial now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately attracted more women to the platform than in previous years and has led to an increase in female registrations, with 37% of STEM registrations in 2022 of women compared to 31% in 2019 (Women and skills assessment). This increased share of female learners enrolling in scientific and technical streams makes ongoing interventions to improve their retention even more crucial.
At Coursera, our daily work is dedicated to the millions of learners around the world who are trying to improve their lives and the future of their families by learning new skills online. Our new study, Women and Online Learning in Emerging Markets, developed in partnership with IFC and the European Commission, quantifies how online learning can lead to meaningful career outcomes. We want to ensure that all groups of learners succeed in the online courses we offer and constantly iterate to better support our incredibly diverse community on Coursera, especially those who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. I consider it both an honor and a responsibility to help our learners’ dreams come true.
Q3: What advice do you have for current PhD students who want to learn more about opportunities outside of the traditional faculty path and who potentially want to work at a learning and technology company like Coursera?
Doctoral programs provide rigorous training in consuming and conducting research, which are crucial skills for any 21st century job. While many students think a PhD is only for those interested in academia, I would say these essential research skills can and will help you in a wide range of careers.
Upon graduating from a PhD, you should have the ability to formulate a well-conceived hypothesis, design a framework to test it, gather relevant data, and analyze your results. Whether you’re interested in education, healthcare, sustainability, or something else entirely, any business in these complex industries needs strategic thinkers who can challenge assumptions, uncover new insights, and test new ideas.
When it comes to advice, I would say start by finding companies with goals that you are passionate about. Investigate any open roles or existing teams they have. Where do your skills match their job descriptions? Are there any specific topics or skills you haven’t encountered yet? Use these roles that interest you as a guide to the next courses to take. Then, when you land an interview, you can discuss not only your relevant experience, but also how you improved your skills based on their job description. It shows that you will take real initiative to get the job done. Plus, it’s always a plus to keep learning!