Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education

At the core of the transformation of education toward student-centered learning[i] is the ability to personalize learning for each student, to open student pathways, and to encourage student voice and choice in next generation education models. We wrote Mean What You Say: Defining and Integrating Personalized, Blended and Competency Education because the terms surrounding this transformation are being confused, and this confusion leads to fuzziness in how new personalized learning models are implemented.  

By providing a scan of the literature and expanding the knowledge base to integrate the core ideas of personalized learning, blended learning, and competency education, within a framework of college and career ready standards, this paper  explains the nuances of these key terms used by K-12 educators and explores how they can incorporated to create new learning models.

College and career ready standards are the building blocks that provide a frame of what a student needs to know and do to be successful. Competencies built on these world-class standards set clear expectations for what a student must “know and show” to demonstrate mastery. In a competency-based system, once the clear standards and expectations are set, then learning environments can offer unprecedented personalization opportunities by increasing the content resources aligned to standards and ways to learn them.

Personalized learning is about student voice and choice, differentiated instruction, immediate instructional interventions, and supports in anywhere, anytime learning.[ii] Personalization is very difficult without blended learning modalities.  Blended learning is a delivery system that utilizes the best of online learning tools and resources to shift the instructional model toward student-centered, highly personalized approaches.  Blended learning makes it easier for teachers to be empowered with technologies that allow personalization.

Competency-based Education is about students advancing upon mastery. Sturgis and Patrick (2011) developed a five-part working definition in partnership with the field at the Competency-based Education Summit hosted by iNACOL and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to describe the design elements of competency-based learning:

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

In the rapidly growing field of next-generation school designs, it is easy to fall into the trap of using terms such as blended learning or competency-based learning as stand-ins for personalized learning. This paper aims to make sense of these concepts individually and then show how they can fit together to build truly personalized, competency-based learning environments to better serve all youth.

Susan Patrick is the President and Chief Executive Officer; Kathryn Kennedy is the Director of Research;  and Allison Powell is the Vice President for State and District Services at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

[i] We use the definition of student-centered learning from Jobs for the Future (JFF) Students at the Center project:

•      Critical and distinct elements of student-centered approaches to learning challenge the current schooling and education paradigm:

–     Embracing the adolescent’s experience and learning theory as the starting point of education;

–     Harnessing the full range of learning experiences at all times of the day, week, and year;

–      Expanding and reshaping the role of the educator; and Determining progression based upon mastery

[ii][ii] Scott Benson, Program Officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, identified the following working list of essential attributes for a personalized learning model (What is personalized learning? A working draft, 2013).

·         Learner Profiles: Captures individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests & aspirations of each student.

  • Personal Learning Paths: Each student has learning goals & objectives. Learning experiences are diverse and matched to the individual needs of students.
  • Individual Mastery: Continually assesses student progress against clearly defined standards & goals. Students advance based on demonstrated mastery.
  • Flexible Learning Environment: Multiple instructional delivery approaches that continuously optimize available resources in support of student learning.



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