Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Meaning Matters: Defining and Differentiating Personalized Learning, Blended Learning and Competency Education

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Natalie Slocum

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Cute pupil in computer class with teacher smiling at camera at tFor the first time in history, we have the opportunity to offer every child a world-class, student-centered education through competency-based, blended and online learning, providing every learner with powerful, personalized learning experiences. However, for the past several years, the fields of personalized learning, blended learning and competency education were having definitional issues, with the terms often used interchangeably or without thorough understanding.

In a rapidly-evolving sector, it can be difficult to understand and keep up with the constant onslaught of new terms and practices. Often a lack of clarity on terms such as personalized learning, competency education and blended learning can negatively impact implementation. If the same words mean different things to different people, confusion and frustration can arise, and this creates a serious problem for schools and leaders. If we don’t use common definitions, communication breaks down and it becomes harder to learn from one another.

As Chris Sturgis explains, we have a language challenge. It’s vital to differentiate these terms to calibrate the field’s understanding and bring cohesion to the field, while creating shared meaning on the various new learning models in development. Making sense of these key terms and understanding how they fit together frames the field’s understanding and supports the shift to next generation learning models and new school designs.

Communicating using the same lexicon is essential to sharing promising practices and avoiding potential pitfalls as we shift toward personalized, student-centered learning environments. By developing shared understanding, the field can innovate and scale faster and more efficiently.

iNACOL - Mean What You Say report coverRegularly-published, field-tested definitions prove useful. By clearly articulating the definitions of these terms, the field can close communication gaps and advance toward next generation learning with increased clarity, effectiveness and scalability.

iNACOL has taken steps to define key terms in the field to generate shared meaning and challenge misconceptions and misunderstandings. Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education describes these terms and their key nuances in greater detail.

By setting definitional standards, we aim to close communication gaps and build the bridge from theory to practice. This will further empower the change agents–from classrooms to statehouses–those building a groundswell of support for competency-based, blended and online learning.


maximizing CBE and BLEach year, iNACOL surveys thousands of experts, leaders and practitioners as new learning models emerge around the globe, and their feedback helps to inform iNACOL’s evolving definitions. We also engage in research and receive feedback from experts through surveys, focus groups, webinars and interviews. By grounding our definitions in the realities of those experiencing the shift toward personalized learning, we can shape the narrative around next generation learning and challenge misconceptions, showcasing the potential of truly student-centered learning.

Below are iNACOL’s definitions of personalized learning, blended learning and competency education that can help illuminate the path forward in policy and practice through knowledge building. Together, these definitions provide context setting and expand the field’s knowledge base. As new learning models develop and scale, it is vital for both practitioners and policymakers to understand the key nuances of these terms.

Personalized Learning: Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

Learn More:

Blended Learning: Any time a student learns, at least in part, at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and, at least in part, through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace. The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience” (Horn & Staker, 2013).

Learn More:

Competency Education: In 2011, iNACOL and CompetencyWorks led a summit bringing together 100 innovators in competency education for the first time. At that meeting, participants fine-tuned a working definition of high-quality competency education:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

Learn More:

Stay tuned for upcoming blogs in this “Mean What You Say” blog series which will investigate each of these concepts individually as well as portray how these terms fit together.

What do personalized learning, blended learning, and competency education mean to you? Let us know in the comments below or on twitter at @nacol.