A FEW weeks ago I attended an awards ceremony in Langkawi, where Thomson Reuters was honouring Malaysian academicians for their international achievements.
On the plane ride back, I was seated next to Professor Dr Mushtak Al Atabi from Taylor's University.
He had attended the ceremony and received an award under the best performing journal category for the Journal of Engineering Science and Technology, of which he is the founding editor-in-chief. Congratulations where due!
Anyway, we started chatting about the award, his background and his work.
I learned that Dr Mushtak holds Bachelors and Masters degrees from Baghdad University.
He left his home country of Iraq in 1997 following the imposition of economic sanctions and general hardships to pursue his PhD at the University of Sheffield.
He now lectures at Taylor's University in the subjects of Mechanical Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Emotional Intelligence.
Dr Mushtak was attracted to live and work in Malaysia because "of Malaysia's hospitable culture and good infrastructure".
Dr Mushtak is a pioneer in the Malaysian (massive open online course) MOOC scene, an online learning approach whereby courses are accessible openly via the web by unlimited participants.
The world's top universities such as MIT and Harvard offer MOOCs and a EdX and Coursera are examples of famous MOOCs platforms.
"In March 2013, my first MOOC on Entrepreneurship (and the first in Malaysia) went live. It attracted 3,500 students from 145 different countries," said Dr Mushtak, who speaks about MOOCs with great passion.
Given the overwhelming success and response, he has since offered two more MOOCs – in Global Entrepreneurship and Emotional Intelligence.
Dr Mushtak has written about his students' MOOCs experiences, detailed in his book Think Like an Engineer.
He drew my attention to two particular success stories that demonstrate the role of online learning in not only disseminating knowledge, but knowledge that then becomes a tool for transforming lives.
Carol Ragsdale, 50, lives in the United States and stumbled upon Dr Mushtak's Achieve Success with Emotional Intelligence MOOC online.
Intrigued, she signed up for the free Taylor's University course on impulse.
Carol had been struggling with grief after losing her 19-year old son in a car accident. Her relationships with family, friends and colleagues were gravely affected as a result and she would search the web daily for an answer to alleviate her pain.
Carol recounts, "I have to say, nothing I had done since the death of my son has reached beyond the surface of my existence the way the first lecture on 'What is Success' did".
Carol realised she was ill-equipped for the tools that would help her endure the struggles associated with life.
She now understands the importance of holistic education.
"Our children should be taught the importance of emotional intelligence as soon as we teach them how to talk! I now believe it is even more important than the physics, science and math – that we demand they learn about their emotions and how to manage themselves.
"At the end of the day, the technical knowledge without a true-life understanding is the mechanics without any power," she said.
Another story that caught my attention was that of Paul Koba, a young man living in Tanzania, one of the first participants of the Achieve Success with Emotional Intelligence MOOC.
Paul was in love with a young lady, but owing to his shyness, was not able to reveal his love for her despite being together for almost three years.
However, after watching lecture two of the MOOC, especially the All Emotions Are OK part, Paul said that he learnt to let go of the fear that gripped his emotions and was encouraged to share his feelings with the love of his life.
He was able to muster the courage required and in December 2013, they got married.
Inspired by such simple but profound success stories, I asked Dr Mushtak about his approach in motivating students.
"I believe that every human being has unlimited potential and the role of education is to help unlock this potential," he replied.
"What better platform to achieve this than through MOOC. And what better place to do it in than in Malaysia?" he said.
So, what does the future hold for MOOCs and Malaysia, I asked.
"Malaysia stands strategically as a bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Malaysia has the advantages of a modern stable democracy with progressive Islamic values, enabling us to host cultural and intellectual dialogues– making Malaysia the most important country in the world!
"As such, there is space for a MOOCs on this and this is something I hope to explore in the future," he excitedly said.
Dr Mushtak adds that there is immense potential in Malaysia's higher education system to be world-class in a distinctive manner.
There are a mix of factors playing in our favour, and if leveraged can produce an aspirational education system that balances hands on and heads on components.
By capturing emerging educational trends, and tweaking them according to our national strengths, we can help students achieve their full potential and consequently change the world.