The on-demand Coursera course How Things Work includes six modules, which are named for everyday objects or activities: skating, falling balls, ramps, seesaws, wheels, and bumper cars.
One challenge that online instructors face is how to attract learners’ attention early in the instruction and sustain their attention through the instruction. Dr. Louis A. Bloomfield in How Things Work stimulates students’ curiosity by asking a question that involves a real life situation at the beginning of each video. For example, why does a dropped ball fall downward? This approach promotes students to think about this question based on their own life experience. To explain the relevant concept(s) and also to keep students’ attention, each video includes several experiments or demonstrations, within which the instructor explains the physics phenomenon associated with the question and the experiments. For example, to explain an object’s horizontal and vertical motion, the video includes a three-point basketball shooting in slow motion with explanatory marks. The basketball shooting helps students relate motions in real life contexts. Multiple balls with yellow marks in the image below also help students understand motions in the two directions better.
The demonstrations do not have to be difficult outdoor shooting; simple indoor experiments involving everyday subjects also work. In a video about inertia, the instructor starts with a glass of wine and a plate resting on a silk tablecloth. As he whisks away the tablecloth with a flourish, the objects slide a little with the tablecloth and then remain solidly in place. Then he discusses the concept of inertia and why the glass and plate remained on the table.
Appropriate in-video questions also maintain students’ attention and arouse their curiosity. Mostly the in-video questions in How Things Work are simple multiple-choice questions in an applied scenario. Like in the inertia video, after the instructor explains inertia, he pops up this in-video question “A rotary lawnmower spins its sharp blade rapidly over the lawn and cuts the top off the grasses. Would the blade still cut the grasses if they weren’t attached to the ground, but still standing upright so that the blade can reach them?”
To sum up, How Things Work utilizes several techniques to make the videos engaging. Asking a question related to everyday life promotes students’ curiosity at the beginning of a video. Presenting a recorded live experiment attracts students’ attention and keeps them engaged. Using in-video questions at appropriate places prompts thinking and also sustains attention.