One of the most common questions we get here is “Can I use WordPress to deliver my online courses?” We’re certainly fans of WordPress — this site is powered by it, like so many other blogs. And if you spend so much time regularly using a tool, it’s natural to ask if it can be used in other ways.
On the surface, WordPress certainly seems like it provides a lot of the same functionality that an LMS or a SaaS learning platform does. You can use the default blogging tool to write lessons, insert infographics, present videos and slides, even conduct discussions with students. But if you want to do things like control access, track progress, and add quizzes or polls, then you’ll need some additional software, called plug-ins, to extend the WordPress functionality.
You may in fact already be using plug-ins, for example, to optimize your SEO, collect email for a newsletter, or manage a membership area. If you do, it would seem natural to try and find one to manage you online courses. There are a number of pros and cons to this approach.
Pros for Using a WordPress Plug-in for Online Learning
Tools such as CoursePress or LearnDash provide some of the types of functionalities you might be looking for an online learning platform. By installing one of these tools on top of WordPress, you gain a number of benefits.
First, and usually the most obvious, is the extensive customization of the look and feel of your site. Because your courses will be hosted under your WordPress install, you can maintain a consistent graphical brand identity with your main website. You have direct control over things like colors, images, menus, fonts, and the URL. And since you are already running a WordPress site, you’re likely driving sign-ups directly from your blog.
Second, the price of many of these tools, as a one time capital outlay, seems to be lower than the dedicated LMS software options, as well as the monthly cost of the SaaS hosted solutions. Some plug-ins are actually free, or at least offer a free option to get started with. This certainly makes these options attractive, especially if you’re not sure about committing to a platform.
Third, because you are in complete control and usually have access to the database that powers your WordPress site, you can be relatively certain that the user data is always available to you. This is of particular value when you’re trying to build an email list by giving away a free course in the hopes of selling those users of the products.
Cons of using WordPress Plug-ins for eLearning
The first problem with using WordPress eLearning plug-ins is actually the same as the first benefit: customization. Some customizations for your branding are important, of course. But we have seen many people spend endless hours tweaking the layout, graphics, colors, and all the other infinite options that related to the look and feel of the site. This can lead you to feel like you are doing work when actually you’d be better off spending time creating compelling content that delivers value to the students. After all that is what they’re paying for!
But perhaps more problematic is that, unless you’re an expert in user experience (UX), you could be making changes that negatively affect your course completion rate. We’ve learned in conversations with product managers at different SaaS hosted elearning platforms that they have heavily tested the UX of their sites down to the size and colors of the buttons. One UX designer from one of these providers told us that a single, simple change of the color and font of their UI improved their course completion rate by nearly 5%. They only discovered this after extensive “A/B” testing.
Secondly, if you already manage a WordPress site, you’re probably familiar with notifications like this:
Plug-ins are often built with specific versions of WordPress in mind. If your version doesn’t match the version needed by the plug-in, you might not get it to install. Or, by updating your WordPress version to fix the problem with your elearning plug-in, you could break other installed tools that require other versions of WordPress. Most of the plug-ins for elearning are more complex than WordPress tools for things like SEO or newsletter management which means they aren’t as easily upgraded to match the latest and greatest versions of WordPress.
Making all this work together means, at best, that you are spending your time on “IT” tasks, rather than creating your next course, or interacting with students; at worst it means your course goes down, your blog is unavailable or your entire site crashes. And, since there is no LMS SaaS hosting provider, then you become the help desk for your students!
Lastly, we’ve seen an issue with what’s called “abandonware.” You may have seen this sort of thing on the WordPress Plugin directory:
Because many plug-ins are created by a single developer rather than a company, if the developer decides they no longer have time to work on the plug-in, the software dies. While there is no guarantee that even a Silicon Valley VC funded start up stays in business, the cheapness of the plug-ins means that developers have to live off of the next sale. This could leave you with an installed plug-in that prevents you from ever upgrading your WordPress version just to keep it alive.
So, for these reasons, even though we love WordPress for our blog, we wouldn’t want to use it to host a course, especially if our students have paid for access to the content.