Creating online courses is pretty big business these days. And there are a lot of ways to go.
Some prefer the hand-holding and relative ease of Teachable, Thinkific, or some other third-party hosted solution. While these platforms come with many conveniences, they can also be relatively pricey and limiting.
Many course creators decide to self-host their own online courses right on top of WordPress. And a handful of popular options come up as WordPress learning management systems (or LMS for short).
In this LearnDash review, I want to tell you why I chose LearnDash over the other options... as well as discuss the pros and cons of the software.
Let's dive in...
First, What's an LMS?
It is important to keep our terminology correct here. An LMS is a Learning Management System. An LMS is about much more than just organizing online courses.
If all you need/want is to organize lessons into courses and make it look halfway decent, there are simpler ways to go. I reviewed Thrive Apprentice, for instance, and it does a solid job. In the end, by creating a custom post type and having your theme make it all look good, you could have online courses that work quite nicely using very little infrastructure.
But, that won't be an LMS. An LMS has features that go beyond just organizing courses, such as:
- Assignments to students
- Progress tracking
When it comes to WordPress LMS platforms, LearnDash is the most popular. It does... pretty much everything. Also, since it is the market leader it means that a ton of things integrate with it. There are numerous themes out there with direct LearnDash integration, for instance, allowing you to make it all look great.
There are other alternatives, such as LifterLMS, LearnPress, Sensei and WP Courseware.
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Key Features of LearnDash
Let's run through some of the key features of LearnDash 3.0 that make it quite a powerful platform.
#1 - Drag-And-Drop Course Builder
LearnDash creates 3 new core post types: Courses, Lessons and Topics. Courses are, of course, pretty obvious. Then, within each course, you have one or more lessons. And, optionally, you can even break a lesson up into multiple topics.
The Course Builder allows you to quickly assemble the overall structure of your course using drag-and-drop. You can add lessons, section headers, topics, and quizzes very quickly. You can reorder them around to make sure you have the overall outline in place of your course.
What I like to do is outline my course in Dynalist. Then, I will use the course builder in LearnDash to quickly put together the skeleton of the course. Right from the builder, I can quickly click into individual lessons to put together the content.
#2 - Advanced Quiz Builder
LearnDash has a pretty powerful quiz builder, too. It isn't something I am currently using inside the LAB, but it is nice to know it is there if I decide to use it in the future.
The quiz functionality is also quite developed as well. LearnDash is used in a lot of pretty official learning sites where quiz functionality is literally part of their grade or even professional certifications. So, quizzes need to be secure and flexible.
You have a lot of different question types available...
You can set up your quiz questions, correct answers, and all settings right from a quiz builder which operates a lot like the Course Builder (pictured above).
You can issue certificates when they get a passing score. You can use a quiz as a gateway to unlocking further content. You can put time limits on quizzes, allow retakes (or not). You can put custom fields on a quiz to collect custom data from your students before they take the quiz. You can even show leaderboards of student grades.
It is VERY robust.
#3 - Strong Access Control
LearnDash has built-in course access control... OR you can use it alongside any membership site plug-in and let the membership handle things.
Built right into LearnDash, you can:
- Allow open access, so anybody can take it.
- Free, so they need to be registered, but can access the course without paying anything.
- Buy now, which means they can instantly purchase the course via LearnDash's built-in Stripe and Paypal integration
- Recurring, which means they pay with LearnDash, but they are billed on a recurring basis for continued access.
- Closed, which means either only manual enrollment by an admin, OR you are deferring to a third-party integration (like a membership plug-in) for access control.
So yes, this technically means you can run a membership site or sell online courses with LearnDash alone... without the need for any other systems. I can't say I would recommend that, however.
The LearnDash integration with Stripe and Paypal is quite simplistic. It works. But, it lacks many of the options and controls of a full-featured shopping cart or membership plug-in. Personally, make all sales using ThriveCart (read my ThriveCart review). I do access control on the site using WP Fusion (read my WP Fusion review) so that I can control everything with tags. So, for me, I set all courses to "Closed" in the LearnDash settings and WP Fusion handles it all.
LearnDash also has a "Groups" feature where you can group courses together and add or remove access rights in bulk. You can specify certain settings that apply to a group of courses all at once.
Since I integrate with WP Fusion, I use that to auto-enroll people into the LAB PRO group whenever anybody buys a PRO membership.
Whenever I apply that tag to their profile, WP Fusion auto-enrolls them into the LAB PRO group in LearnDash... which in turn enrolls them in every single course in the system so they have access.
Using LearnDash with WP Fusion is a very powerful combination. Click here to learn what WP Fusion does in my review and why I love it so much.
#4 - Pre-requisites And Progression Control
LearnDash also has the ability to force (or not force) the way students can consume your courses.
You can assign pre-requisites if you want, therefore requiring they complete other courses before being allowed to take another.
You can also control whether you want students to be able to skip around and do lessons in whatever order they want.... or if you want them make them go in order. In my case, most courses in the LAB are free-form. However, the Roadmap phases are set to Linear so that they do it all in the order I specify.
#5 - Built-in Progress Tracking
In my previous course system before I switched to LearnDash, I had no way to see what my students were doing. They could mark lessons completed, but I had no way to see it. So, a major selling point for me on LearnDash was the ability to see what my students were doing.
First, when you visit any member's profile, you have a breakdown of all of their progress on every course they are enrolled in. Here's what mine looks like in my own profile admin:
You can also view details of exactly what content they've completed... and you can even edit their progress if you have some reason to do so.
LearnDash also has a ProPanel add-on (a separate plug-in) that allows you to run collective reports across your entire site to see who is consuming your courses. The plug-in puts some widgets on your WordPress dashboard so you can view reports. Here's an example on the full-screen display of the ProPanel...
You can see how many people are enrolled in each course, if they're making progress, etc. You can also look up individual users without having to go to their full profile. It is very handy.
Even cooler, but with WP Fusion running in the mix, I can even add tags when they mark lessons as complete or complete the entire course. All kinds of automated followups can be built with that.
(NOTE: If you could use my help getting your membership site set up with your theme, LearnDash, and your membership system, check out our WordPress Tech Service. It is all credit-based, so no long-term commitments. Just enough to get you moving.)
What Does LearnDash Look Like?
One of the big things you need to consider with any online course system is what it will ultimately look like to the end user.
By default, LearnDash has a pretty basic look and feel on the front-end. It is designed to work in conjunction with your site's theme. It also works on the basis of custom post types in WordPress, so everything can be customized with theme templates specific to those custom post types.
Here's a super basic course created and displayed inside the default Twenty Twenty theme that comes with WordPress.
As you can see, it works just fine. LearnDash does ship with some CSS on it's own that will ensure it looks pretty good regardless of the theme you are using.
One of the beauties of Learndash is all the third-party support for it. That means there are also a lot of themes out there that are purpose-built to make LearnDash look great. Some of them are:
There are quite a few more. Many of them are themes not specifically built to LearnDash, but has code within them specific to LearnDash so that it will look nicely.
I personally use the BuddyBoss Theme inside THE LAB and the courses look great - all powered by LearnDash.
It is a pretty powerful combo. 🙂
Click here to check out my full review of the BuddyBoss Theme. Might it be the perfect membership site theme?
The Cost of LearnDash (And The Competitors)
There are 3 options to purchase LearnDash:
- 1 Site License - $159
- 10 Site Licenses with ProPanel - $189
- 25 Licenses with ProPanel - $329
In my view, this makes the middle option for $189 an absolute no-brainer. Being able to run it on more sites is cool, but honestly the extra $30 is totally worth it just for the ProPanel reporting add-on.
Each plan is recurring annually.
So, the obvious question is... how does this compare with competitors? Is LearnDash the best deal?
It would take forever for me to fully compare LearnDash with every alternative. There are quite a few LMS options out there.
LifterLMS is pretty popular and free. For that reason alone, LifterLMS has a lot of fans. The company makes their money on add-ons, but the core product is free. So, definitely, LifterLMS is a solid Learndash alternative to check out. Keep in mind, though, that the cost of those add-ons will add up quickly.
WP Courseware is another popular option... one I used myself for awhile. Back when I used it, it was one of the only viable options for WordPress. While I haven't used it since, it looks to me (from the outside) that the solution might have been surpassed. I'm sure it works nicely - and it is nice to see they still have my testimonial on their site. 😉 But, with a price of $149 for it, I would personally pony up the extra few bucks for LearnDash.
Many of my readers know I am a big fan of Thrive Themes. That naturally brings up Thrive Apprentice.
I have written a full review of Thrive Apprentice which you can check out. But, the short version is this...
Apprentice is not really an LMS. It will help you post and organize your online courses. But, it contains none of the features of a real LMS, such as quizzing, tracking, reporting, certificates, progress control, etc.
Apprentice does one basic thing: Gives you a platform to post online courses. It has some theme customization options, but it is not nearly as customizable as something like LearnDash.
I could never use Thrive Apprentice in my business. I needed more functionality. Pure and simple. So, as much as I like Thrive Themes, Apprentice just doesn't do it for me.
LearnDash is, in my view, the standard-bearer when it comes to learning management systems for WordPress. And certainly with the most recent version 3.x, I think it is the one to beat.
Especially with their pricing... which is VERY reasonable for what you get.
Sure, you can test out the alternatives. You can even check out the hosted options like Teachable, Thinkific or Kajabi. But...
In my view, LearnDash is has the absolute best balance of simplicity, ease, power and cost.
That's why I chose LearnDash to run my membership site (THE LAB) and I see no reason why I would ever need to migrate to another system.
If you have any setup questions, don't hesitate to ask (just post below). And if you need hands-on help with your setup, don't forget we've got the WordPress Marketing Automation Service.