3 Questions for Coursera’s Alexandra Urban

By Joshua Kim

When I learned that Dr. Alexandra Urban recently completed her EdD (Doctor of Education) 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 for others hoping to follow a similar career path.

Q1: Tell us about your role at Coursera.

At Coursera, I am a principal learning designer on the Teaching & Learning Team, focused broadly on the content development process, improving the platform, and advancing online pedagogy. My background is in Educational Neuroscience, applying how the human brain learns to improve teaching environments. While during the day, I work with universities to build high-quality online degrees, I’ve also recently completed a fully online degree as a student, where I conducted research to understand and better support female learners in online STEM courses. My role at Coursera is all about infusing learning sciences research into our best practices to empower 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 simply extra work, both for instructors to create and students to take, but on Coursera, we can isolate the impact of different teaching methods and determine that the inclusion of practice activities can drive significant increases to learners’ course persistence, skill development, and eventual career outcomes. See Coursera’s Drivers of Quality report for more details.

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

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

The backbone of this work was diving into research on what empowers females and learners from less affluent communities, specifically around boosting their intrinsic motivation. I’m currently working on summarizing articles of my dissertation, which I hope to have publicly available in the coming months. Preview: the results were really promising, with several significant boosts in female retention. I’m also super excited that we’re taking what we learned and using it to make our product and platform even better.

This work is especially crucial now, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought disproportionately more women to the platform than previous years and led to elevated female enrollment numbers, with 37% of STEM enrollments in 2022 from women compared to 31% in 2019 (Women and Skills Report). This increased share of female learners enrolling in scientific and technical courses makes in-course interventions to improve their retention even more critical.

At Coursera, our work every day is dedicated to the millions of learners worldwide trying to better their lives and their families’ future 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 all groups of learners are succeeding in the online courses we provide and are consistently iterating to better support our incredibly diverse community on Coursera, especially those who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. I see it as both an honor and a responsibility to help our learners’ dreams become their reality.

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

Doctoral programs provide rigorous training on consuming and conducting research, which are crucial skills for any 21st-century job. While many students think a doctorate is only for those interested in academia, I would argue that these critical research skills can and will help you in a broad range of careers.

Coming out of a doctorate, you should have the ability to form a well-crafted hypothesis, design a framework to test it, gather the relevant data, and analyze your findings. Whether you’re interested in education, healthcare, sustainability, or something else, any company in these complex industries needs strategic thinkers who can challenge assumptions, uncover new insights, and test new ideas.

As far as advice goes, I would say start by finding companies with goals that excite you. Investigate what open roles or existing teams they have. Where do your skills align with their job descriptions? Are there specific topics or skills you haven’t yet encountered? Use these roles that interest you as a guide toward what courses to take next. Then, when you land an interview, you can discuss not only your relevant experience but also how you have upskilled specific to their job description. It shows you will take true initiative to get the job done. Plus, it’s always a benefit to keep learning!