How Online Education Is Increasing Gender Diversity in STEM

By Emily Glassberg Sands, Head of Data Science at Coursera in collaboration with Alan Hickey and Vinod Bakthavachalam, Senior Data Scientists at Coursera

At Coursera, we strive to unlock life-transforming learning and credentials for anyone, anywhere. Seventy-five percent of high-school-aged girls say they are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), yet only 28 percent of the graduates of U.S. STEM degree programs are female.

On Coursera, 30 percent of our U.S. course completers in STEM are female — far from full parity but higher than the share of STEM degree graduates in the country. In honor of International Women’s Day and this year’s theme of #BalanceForBetter, we reflect on how Coursera and online education as a whole can contribute to advancements in gender diversity:

  1. Scale female instructors. The online medium provides a unique opportunity to scale the reach of individual instructors — including those who are members of historically under-represented groups in their fields — and provide broader access to diverse role models. Our research shows that courses with female instructors attract a significantly higher share of female enrollees, even when we control for the subject area of the material. In an experiment varying instructor gender and gender salience through use of first names and gendered pronouns, we further found that the effect of instructor gender on whether or not a learner chooses to enroll in any content in the field is substantial. Female learners who received an email about a Machine Learning Specialization emphasizing a female instructor were 26 percent more likely to enroll in a STEM course on the platform than those who received an otherwise identical email about the same Specialization emphasizing a male instructor.
  2. Design course material for inclusiveness. Creating a curriculum that can appeal to all learners is not just about finding the right instructor. The majority of the content in the Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera, for example, was written by women and contains the personal stories of Googlers, including female executives who talk about how they’ve struggled with imposter syndrome and work to overcome it. These measures have helped to increase learner diversity within the program: 30% of learners are female compared to 20% in IT content generally on Coursera.
  3. Use machine-learned interventions to drive persistence. The scale of learning made possible by the online medium and the data generated as learners move through their learning experiences opens a unique opportunity to better meet the needs of every learner — including historically disadvantaged groups. Powered by machine learning, our personalized in-course interventions reach learners with just-in-time guidance, support, and encouragement to persist through courses. One example is the targeted review material intervention, which recommends videos or readings to struggling learners; this intervention disproportionately aids female learners in persisting and completing content.
  4. Launch new features to support a diversity of learning strategies. The recently piloted video highlights feature allows learners to save checkpoints in their lecture videos and add notes directly, empowering a more active viewing experience and facilitating review. In STEM content, female learners are 36% more likely than male learners to take at least one note. While early, these results are encouraging because facilitating the review of course material has, as noted above, been found to significantly increase the rate at which female learners persist.
  5. Enable university experimentation and iteration. Through our AB testing functionality for partners, instructors and researchers can rigorously learn what types of teaching works best for which learners: enrollees are randomized into different versions of the same course to reveal the causal effect of different chosen teaching inputs (such as videos) on key learning outputs (such as course completion). Many researchers are leveraging the technology to learn how to advance equality of opportunity. For example, Chris Brooks from the University of Michigan wants to know: Do subtle gender cues impact female learners in STEM content? He randomized the appearance of male versus female workers in the background of some videos, and found that learners post more messages in the same-gendered condition.

At Coursera, we are committed to pursuing research, product innovations, and partnerships that enable us to create a welcoming environment for each and every learner. Through testing and scaling initiatives like these, we are making progress toward closing the gender gap in STEM on the Coursera platform directly, all the while building a stronger collective understanding of the strategies that might move the needle across learning contexts.




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Vinod Bakthavachalam

Vinod Bakthavachalam

I am interested in politics, economics, & policy. I work as a data scientist and am passionate about using technology to solve structural economic problems.

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