3 Questions for Coursera’s Alexandra Urban | In higher ed

When I learned that Dr. Alexandra Urban recently completed her EDD (Doctor of Doctorate) while working full-time at Coursera, I had to hear more. Alexandra graciously answered my questions about her graduate research, her work at Coursera, and her advice to others. Follow the same career path.

Q1: Tell us about your role at Coursera.

At Coursera, I am a Principal Instructional Designer in the Teaching and Learning team, with a broad focus on the content development process, improving the platform, and enhancing online learning. My background is in educational neuroscience, applying how the human brain learns to improve teaching environments. I work with universities to develop high-quality online degrees during the day, and I recently completed my degree as a fully online student, researching how to better understand and support female students in online STEM courses. My role at Coursera is to integrate learning science research into our best practices to empower partners and students.

One project I am particularly proud of is how we were able to measure the effects of different teaching strategies. For example, we sometimes think of practice questions as extra work, both for teachers to create and for students to take, but at Coursera, we identify the impact of different teaching methods and determine that incorporating hands-on activities can lead to significant increases. Students’ course persistence, skill development, and final career outcomes. See the Coursera Drivers of Quality report for more details.

Q2: You just got your Doctor of Education from Johns Hopkins University. What was your thesis and how does your research relate to your work at Coursera?

My dissertation consisted of two primary research studies. The first was to better understand why women are less likely to remain in STEM MOOCs, even after controlling for systematically lower enrollment rates compared to their male counterparts. Then, combining those new insights with findings from other research literature, I designed brief, novel interventions and tested them in a randomized controlled trial in an effort to close the gender gap in STEM course completion.

The backbone of this work was to research women and students from less affluent communities, particularly in developing their intrinsic motivation. I am currently working on summarizing the articles for my dissertation, which I hope to make public in the coming months. Preview: The results were really promising, with several significant advances in women’s survival. I’m excited that we’re taking what we’ve learned and using it to make our product and platform even better.

This work is critical now, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has brought more women to the fore than in previous years and led to higher female enrollments, with 37% of female STEM enrollments in 2022 compared to 31% in 2019. skills report). This raises the concern that the proportion of female students enrolling in scientific and technical courses interferes with course retention.

At Coursera, our work is dedicated to the millions of students who strive to improve their lives and the future of their families by learning new skills online every day. Our new study on Women and Online Education in Emerging Markets, developed in partnership with the IFC and the European Commission, shows how online education can deliver meaningful employment outcomes. We want to make sure that all groups of students in the online courses we offer are successful and iterating on Coursera to better support our communities, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. I see it as an honor and responsibility to help our students’ dreams come true.

Q3: What advice do you have for current doctoral students who want to learn about opportunities outside of traditional faculty lines and work at a learning and technology company like Coursera?

Doctoral programs provide solid training in the use and conduct of research, which are critical skills for any 21st century career. While many students think that a PhD is only for those interested in academia, I would argue that these critical research skills can and will help you in a variety of careers.

After your PhD, you should have the ability to formulate a well-formed hypothesis, design a framework to test it, collect relevant data, and analyze your findings. Whether you’re interested in education, healthcare, sustainability, or anything else, any company in these complex industries needs strategic thinkers who challenge assumptions, uncover new insights, and test new ideas.

As far as advice goes, I’d say start by finding companies with goals that interest you. Check what open roles or existing teams are available. Where do your skills match their job descriptions? Are there certain topics or skills you haven’t yet come across? Use these roles that interest you as a guide to what courses you should take next. Then, when you interview, you can discuss not only your relevant experience, but how you developed skills specific to their job description. It shows that you take real initiative to get the job done. Plus, it’s always good to keep learning!

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