Digital Transformation: How Public-Private Partnerships Can Help Higher Education

Digital Transformation: How Public-Private Partnerships Can Help Higher Education

Colleges and universities face many challenges in today’s evolving global landscape. They are expected to meet the needs of diverse learners across a range of teaching and learning modalities, prepare youth and adults to navigate uncertain job markets, cultivate citizens who will contribute to democratic life, and grow innovators to imagine and implement solutions to tough global problems from climate change to high inequality.

At the same time, higher education institutions face great constraints. Public funding is scarce due to the many budgetary pressures that squeeze governments (OECD 2020). Some families and students are questioning the promise of higher education as a way to obtain a profitable job and stable career (Greenberg 2022 for an overview in the US). In some cases declining enrolments – more than 10% in the Canadian college sector between 2011 and 2021 (Usher 2022) – compound the challenge as fewer students typically means lower budgets for institutions to deliver on their missions. 

Educators, for their part, are grappling with intensifying demands to design and deliver courses and programs that are labour-market relevant and accessible in multiple modalities – in person, online and various combinations of both.

Initially an emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the massive shift to hybrid and online learning appears durable: a 2022 national survey conducted by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association found that 70% of respondents (from a sample of 456 educators and administrators from 163 higher education institutions across Canada) expect growth in hybrid and online learning over the next two years (Irhouma and Johnson 2022). 

As institutions strive to adapt what and how they teach to meet the needs of learners, employers, and society at large, educators need support. This support needs to take various forms – from well-designed career paths and built-in incentives and rewards to encourage a focus on high quality, forward-looking, teaching practices, to learning supports that meet their evolving skills needs as professionals.

To help educators stay ahead of the curve, York University and Sandbox Inc. are collaborating to create a series of interactive, media-enriched learning modules (found here) on innovative academic concepts. 

Funded by eCampus Ontario through the Ontario Exchange Program (OEX), the modules are designed to help faculty across the province explore the teaching benefits of emergent pedagogy – and get first-hand tips from fellow academics about how to implement academic innovation in their work. Starting with the topics of competency-based evaluation and micro-credentialing, these modules embody three guiding principles that can help educators adopt a human-centred approach to education in an increasingly digital reality. 

  1. Active collaboration between educators and industry partners is essential in determining how the digital transformation of education unfolds. Our partnership builds on this need for collaboration, leveraging York’s expertise in pedagogy and academic innovation with Sandbox’s expertise in technology and design. Embracing the theory of Entangled Pedagogy (Fawns, 2022) this partnership embodies the view of technology as being inextricably linked to the design, development and delivery of education. This combined approach of pedagogical expertise and technological innovation has the potential to inform a more integrated, sustainable, and targeted approach to digital transformation in higher education.  
  2. Continuous feedback loops are key to the process of partnership. From the beginning, subject matter experts and technical staff have provided input on the evolving content and design of our modules, testing prototypes of the platform to provide essential user feedback. This iterative method helps improve the modules in direct response to useridentified needs, but more importantly, it creates a process that can inform future adaptations of the module content and provide a pathway to responsive, rather than reactive, digital transformation practices. 
  3. Layered and learner-centred is the central vision when creating content. The modules are designed to be flexible and adaptable, allowing learners to progress in a way that suits their own learning goals and honours previous knowledge they may have in these subject areas. Core learning objectives form the first layer of content, with additional opportunities for deeper exploration and reflection layered throughout, and a final layer of take-away resources that extend learning beyond the module. For example, one could choose to explore the introductory section within the competency-based evaluation module as a basic primer to the topic while an educator more familiar with this area could bypass that section altogether and instead focus their efforts on sections concerned with how to carry out competency-based assessments. These layered learning paths allow for a more personalised and powerful digital learning experience.  

With projected growth in hybrid learning and rapidly changing labour market needs, digital transformation in higher education needs to be agile and sustainable, focusing on a systematic process to foster active partnership, continuous feedback, and learner-centred design.

Higher education institutions have a critical role to play to foster healthy people and societies despite the headwinds facing them. The digitalization of the sector does not need to be a new burden: it has the potential to help higher education institutions become more accessible, and relevant, but it will require action and investment from those in the classroom, in the strategic planning sessions and from those doing the policy work.

Public-private partnerships will be essential for keeping technology grounded in sound pedagogy and ready to respond to the changing needs of educators, employers, and today’s learners. After all, the digital transformation of higher education is not just about adopting technology, but about reimagining how the higher education ecosystem works together to deliver learning that better serves the needs of students, faculty, and society. 


Written by Dr. Michelle Sengara, Director, Academic Innovation at York University and Patricia Mangeol, Director, Digital Learning Initiatives and Higher Education Analyst at Sandbox Inc. (On secondment from OECD)


Irhouma, T. & Johnson, N. (2022), Digital Learning in Canada: A Changing Landscape, Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, content/uploads/2023/01/2022_national_report_en.pdf  

Fawns, T. (2022), “An Entangled Pedagogy: Looking Beyond the Pedagogy—Technology Dichotomy”, Postdigital Science and Education, 4, 711–728, 

Greenberg, S. (2022), “Survey: Conflicting Views of Higher Education”, Inside Higher Ed,

Usher, A. (2022). The Global Collapse in “College” Enrolments. Higher Education Strategy Associates. 

OECD (2020), Resourcing Higher Education: Challenges, Choices and Consequences, Higher Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,