UMass takes on the challenging online market

The University of Massachusetts has set an ambitious goal for its renewed push into online education: to increase annual online revenue from $100 million to $400 million. To make that happen, UMass has to break out in an already crowded market and make up for some major lost time. The university system has also hired Don Kilburn, a former executive with a British-based firm, to expand its online education programs — at a salary of $403,000, with a chance to earn even more: a 30 percent annual bonus that would add up to an extra $120,000 a year.

UMassOnline was launched in 2001 under the leadership of Jack M. Wilson, who was recruited from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to take up that task. Wilson became UMass president in 2003 and served in that job until 2011. He said he nurtured UMassOnline, but after that, “We went through three years where nothing happened.”

Wilson said he’s happy to see current UMass president Martin Meehan refocus on UMassOnline. Of Kilburn’s compensation, Wilson said, “I think it’s a substantial salary. If he does the job, it will be well worth it.”


As the Globe reported, Kilburn is a former executive with Pearson PLC — a UK-based education publishing and assessment firm that works with US public universities to expand their online offerings. Kilburn ran the company’s North American division from 2014 to 2016.

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Faced with a competitive market for online education, and the need to fill some budget gaps, UMass is wise to look for areas to expand. But in order to accurately track Kilburn’s success as CEO of UMassOnline, one of the first things that’s needed is transparency about the actual number of online students.

Last August, Meehan put out a press release announcing that UMassOnline course enrollments reached 75,565 for fiscal year 2017, up 6.6 percent from the previous year. UMass spokesman Jeff Cournoyer now explains that 30,000 individual students took a total of 75,565 online courses; and of those 30,000 students, 10,000 took only online courses. About 66 percent of the 30,000 students are Massachusetts students.

UMassOnline also needs more courses, and they need to be marketed more vigorously, in Massachusetts and beyond. More collaboration within the entire UMass system would also elevate the entire program. Right now, most of the online offerings are connected to UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell. Revenue generated by online offerings could be especially important to UMass Boston as it struggles to close a budget deficit.

There’s opportunity for growth in online education. But there’s nothing new about recognizing that. It’s now Kilburn’s job to turn opportunity into actual online tuition. At his payscale, he and Meehan are accountable for making the delivery of new revenue more than a promise.