It was announced last week that Paul Le Blanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University, will take a three-month leave to work with the U.S. Department of Education, where he will “assist the Department’s innovation agenda, focusing on the competency-based education experimental sites project and developing new pathways for innovative programs in higher education.” SNHU is responsible for College for America, a partnership between the university and corporations to provide a new kind of learning experience that is flexible and “built to develop competencies and promotable skills through project-based, real-world learning instead of traditional lectures and credit hours.”

As is perhaps obvious from this announcement, “competency-based education” is attracting a lot of attention these days. Like many terms that emerge in a time of innovation, it means many things to many different people. Sometimes the short-hand can do more harm than good, especially when people think that they are talking about the same thing when they are not.

The main question I have is whether competency-based education is about education or if it is about credentialing. I am sure that the answer to that question from many will be: it’s about both. But aren’t they two different things? I find it confusing when I read about competency-based education and the perspective shifts from education to credentialing and back. For example, when the focus is on how competency-based education can accelerate students to a degree by recognizing learning that they have acquired elsewhere—in jobs, in MOOCs wherever—that does not strike me as “education.” I am not arguing that it isn’t valuable; I am just highlighting the fact that the organization that has conferred the validation has not provided education. This extreme case can be contrasted with others in which competency-based assessments are used as a substitute for other measures, such as time spent in class or a grade, to determine whether a student has mastered a topic in which she has received instruction. That second use case—in which the assessment is combined with instruction and embedded in a curriculum—is an education process. Note, however, that the latter approach could lead some students to master subjects and earn credentials faster, and it could lead other students to take longer to demonstrate mastery and earn credentials.

I wish the discussion of these new innovations and learning could more carefully distinguish between competency-based credentialing and competency-based education. It is not obvious to me that these two functions will always be delivered together, or that a single institution can best serve students while trying to do both things.