LearnDash Review: Does It Deliver the Best in Online Course Creation?
- Kristine Goad
You know that saying, “I know just enough to be dangerous?”
That describes my familiarity with WordPress. I’ve had a serviceable WordPress website for half a dozen years. I built and periodically tweaked it on my own, but it’s neither fancy nor custom. I know practically nothing about HTML, CSS, or PHP.
So I knew testing LearnDash, a WordPress plugin for building courses, would be a bit of a stretch. I knew I might break a few things—but I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.
I was excited to test LearnDash because one of my colleagues, who is much more tech savvy than I am, had hinted that it had “huge capabilities.” I wanted to see what those capabilities were.
LearnDash’s website makes bold promises: “When only the best will do, LearnDash delivers” and “LearnDash courses are dynamic, engaging, and offer the latest in e-learning industry trends.”
Unfortunately, I learned that LearnDash’s huge capabilities weren’t going to be quickly or easily unlocked by me with my current capabilities.
“LearnDash’s huge capabilities were not going to be quickly unlocked by me & my capabilities.”Tweet Me
A Grain of Salt
This was my first attempt to create a course using a WP plugin. I hit my first snag right off the bat: I signed into WordPress.com, where I have four free sites, and tried to upload the LearnDash plugin—only to realize that you can only upload plugins to a WordPress.org site.
After a period of panic, I remembered that my main website is a WordPress.org site, and after several more minutes of searching for my login details, I was finally able to get into that site and upload the plugin.
If you’re a more experienced website creator or WordPress user than me, that should give you a good idea of the skill level from which I am evaluating this plugin. Feel free to take this review with a grain of salt!
The Good News
Once I had made it past that first hurdle, creating the basic architecture and uploading the content for my course turned out to be a painless and straightforward endeavor.
If you’re familiar with creating pages or posts in WordPress, you’ll be comfortable creating course modules and lessons because they’re built from the same WordPress dashboard.
In fact, I uploaded and registered the plugin and built three modules—consisting of 5 lessons, a 4-question quiz, and a certificate of completion—in just one hour and 45 minutes. I merely followed along with the “Best Practices” support document in the Getting Started section of the LearnDash Help Topics page.
This would have been even quicker if I hadn’t had to figure out how to get Safari to stop automatically unzipping the LearnDash file (WordPress will only upload a plugin as a zipped file)… and if I didn’t have issues with my SumoMe Welcome Mat continually popping up instead of going dormant after the first encounter.
Though not exciting, the course outline was clean and easy on the eyes. Here’s what a potential student would see:
And a quick run-through of the course showed everything worked as it should in terms of delivering the content and the quiz, including the correct quiz answers, and quiz results (The highlighted pink response was the student’s incorrect choice. The highlighted green response is the correct response. You’ll notice the instructor can offer additional explanation.):
However, at the end of the initial build, here’s a list of things that weren’t exactly broken or wrong but I found annoying:
- The student had to manually mark each lesson or activity completed, as well as the Module after all lessons and activities in it were completed.
- At the end of the quiz in Lesson 3 of Module 1, the student can’t navigate from the quiz results to the next module. They have to go back to view the quiz questions, hit the back arrow in their browser to return to the course outline, and then click on the link to the next module. Talk about clunky.
- At the end of the course, the student couldn’t tell that the completion certificate had been awarded. Neither was there an easy way to find or print the certificate.
Where Things Went South
Up until this point, I had left the course unpaid (you can either make it Free or Open). I realized that with the Open option, I couldn’t capture a student’s email address, which I would want in the future. I also wanted to see how hard it was to set up the PayPal integration for a paid course.
So, I change the course from free to paid.
I set the price at $1.00 and chose the “Buy Now” Course Price Type (there’s a good chance I should have chosen “Closed,” based on info I learned later).
And then, because I already use PayPal in my business and the “Best Practices” document said it was easiest to set up, I chose PayPal as my merchant option. Other options include Stripe and 2Checkout, among others.
This was my first encounter with a Sandbox (a secure environment in which you can test your processes without actually affecting the application running it), designed to let me test the payment process without any money exchanging hands.
I learned that I needed to create a Sandbox account with dummy PayPal information prior to running the Sandbox tests. Unsure of how long this might take to set up, I opted instead to test the payment process by simply paying myself the one dollar course fee.
The payment process worked perfectly until I tried to move from the receipt to the course. The “PayPal Return” link that had auto-populated in the PayPal Settings and that specified where a student would be taken after payment, took me back to the page with the Buy Now button. It didn’t recognize that I had already paid and should be allowed to start the course.
This is when I realized I didn’t know where the course “lived” on my site. The course had an automatically-created permalink—but it led to the payment page. I had no idea where to send someone to actually start the course!
I could have set the PayPal Return link to take a student right into the first module of the course, but I wanted to take them instead to an index page with the course outline and the ability to navigate between modules.
Now it became clear that a paid course was going to require additional pages: a landing page or course start page, at the very least, and perhaps also a login/logout feature.
I consulted the Help Topics page and found an article called “Options for Selling Courses.” I decided to follow that to help me finish setting up the paid course. Unfortunately, it didn’t answer my core question: Where does my course live? Where is my course start page on my website?
It directed me to consider creating a Student Profile page to send students to after payment. This would show all the courses on my site that the student was enrolled in and serve as a home page of sorts for my students—but I still didn’t know where to send them from the profile page to actually begin the course.
The article ended by sending me to a link to another article called “Setting Up Course Login” that would help me create a login/logout function for paid students. Hoping this would help me solve my problem, I followed the article’s instruction and added another free plugin to my site called Uncanny LearnDash Toolkit, which promised to offer additional functionality.
Unfortunately, creating a login function didn’t solve the problem of where to send a student to begin the course. In fact, it created a new problem (that I haven’t fully resolved as of this writing).
Before I created my login function, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of this statement from the LearnDash documentation:
When a user logs into the site with their credentials, they will be taken to the default WordPress backend administration page. You will want to set-up a redirection to another page instead.
When I discovered this meant students were being set up as users on my WordPress site, I freaked out.
No, the students weren’t being given Admin status, but they were being pointed to my WordPress Dashboard, and this made me uncomfortable.
AND… it still left me with the question of where to redirect them to!
I immediately undid everything I had done to create the login/logout functionality, including deleting the new Login Page I had created…
… which is when I, even as the Admin, lost the ability to log into my own WordPress Dashboard!
More panic ensued. Until it occurred to me to try to login to my site directly from my webhost dashboard—which, amazingly and luckily, worked—and is still the only way I can get into my admin dashboard for the website! (Editor’s Note: Whoops, my bad! I should’ve told Kristine to create a sub-domain on her main WordPress site and test the plugin there. Sorry, Kristine!)
Suffice it to say, I changed the course back to “Open” immediately and sent off a help ticket to LearnDash for help figuring out where to redirect students after payment. The response I received made it clear that I either needed to create a page to redirect students to or install a shopping cart feature (instead of using the built-in PayPal integration) to be able to redirect students back to the start of the course they just paid for.
Here is a workaround I am considering that will avoid the need for logging in or creating a new course starting page:
a) Leave the course I have created set up as Open.
b) Re-create the architecture of this open course (i.e., recreate the index page) in a new course (with a different permalink url), set that to Buy Now, and make it the page that a potential student sees when they want to sign-up.
c) After a student pays for the course in step b, the PayPal receipt will redirect them to the Open course I have set up in step a.
Summary of Features
|FEATURES||YES, NO, AND/OR DETAILS|
|Number of Courses and Students||Unlimited courses & students at all package levels|
||N/A (All files will be hosted on your website, unless you host them elsewhere and either link to or embed them.)|
|Sales Page||Not available in LearnDash; can be created using WordPress|
||Not available in LearnDash; can be created using WordPress|
||Dependent on which Payment Processor you choose|
|Email Marketing||All emails are generated by WordPress, not by LearnDash; LearnDash recommends creating more stylish emails by installing the WP-better-emails plugin or sending all emails from your site through a SparkPost.com account|
||Single Answer, Sorting, Matching, Free Text, Survey, and Essay|
||NOTE: Because students will be uploading files to your site, LearnDash recommends having students upload large files (such as video) to Vimeo or Wistia and submit the link through the Assignment portal.|
|Community/Discussion forum||Forums are available through a free plugin: bbPress (I did not test)|
|Badges/Certificates||Certificates are included; Badges available through the BadgeOS plugin|
||Printable certificates; samples included but you can upload your own|
||Yes–quiz certificate or course completion certificate|
||Payment transactions; steps completed; course completion; quiz results|
|Customer Support||Fast, friendly replies via email Monday-Friday|
Basic (1 site license): $159
Plus Package (10 site licenses): $189
Pro Package (unlimited site licenses): $329
NOTE: As of this writing, they are running a promotion that reduces these fees by $30. This promotion appears to run frequently.
30-Day Money Back Guarantee (excluding renewals and upgrades)
What I Liked Most
I loved how easy it was to create my online course and the familiarity of using the WordPress editor. It was a very straightforward and familiar way of working, which boosted my confidence. If I could have figured out the login and redirect issues, the course creation process would have been quick and pleasant.
I’m also completely in love with the Quiz feature! The range of different quiz formats and the ability to give instant results and explanations to students—or grade the quiz myself and attach personal comments—offer great flexibility and opportunity to make the quizzes interesting and valuable for students.
I felt my brain getting more creative in figuring out ways to assess students’ grasp of the content. Instructors can also elect to receive email alerts when students complete a quiz and to download CSV reports of student progress through the course.
Another potential plus for LearnDash is the number of ways a course can be customized. I’m not sophisticated enough with WordPress to easily implement them, but a more experienced user—or someone with more time and tolerance for breaking things and figuring out how to fix them—can use a multitude of additional plugins (some free), upgrades, and integrations to create a unique, rich, and professional-looking course site.
These include the ability to:
- add student forums (bbPress plugin);
- create an in-course social media environment (BuddyPress plugin);
- award badges (BadgeOs plugin);
- require prerequisite courses be completed before a student enrolls;
- integrate with Slack; and,
- track student progress through a Gradebook.
Finally, while I would have liked to be able to test the plugin without purchasing it, I appreciate the 30-day refund and the price. Creating a course through a WordPress plugin on your own website, rather than on a third-party host or marketplace, could save a substantial amount of money, even if you elect to renew your license each year get updates and extended customer service support beyond the first year.
What I Liked Least
I want the ability to create a sales page that’s separate from the course index page, which should be the course start page. Right now, the sales button appears on the page that I want to use as my course start page. I still haven’t figured out how to separated them. (This may be solved if I use a different merchant option.)
And perhaps this is an issue I will have with any WordPress plugin (and demonstrates my inexperience and ignorance of how tech works): I don’t want to clutter up my main WordPress site administration backend with users as a result of creating a student login function. If I were creating a website specifically for courses, perhaps this wouldn’t bother me.
And while there does seem to be a good amount of documentation on the LearnDash Help Topic page, I would like better, more comprehensive documentation. As someone with limited WordPress experience, I’m not used to going in search of additional plugins or upgrades to add functionality to a site. So something that gives an even higher level view of what’s possible and where to find all the pieces would be appreciated.
(HINT: If you’re looking for your first online course idea, how about creating a great course on how to create a great course using LearnDash? Go into detail about the different merchant options and all of the upgrades, integrations, and other plugins that can be used to create a custom, attractive, and highly functional site.)
Who LearnDash is Best Suited For
LearnDash would be an excellent option for someone with:
a) the time and interest to learn how to build a custom course using WordPress plugins and the programs LearnDash integrates with;
b) a good background in WordPress site creation;
or, c) the willingness and ability to hire LearnDash or a developer to create the custom site they want.
“Looking to create a highly polished site (online course)? LearnDash might be for you.”Tweet Me
From what I’ve seen, LearnDash can produce very professional courses with extensive functionality, so if you’re looking to create a highly polished site, LearnDash might be the right choice for you.
It might also be a great choice for a do-it-yourselfer who wants a tool that will grow with them as their skills advance, or for someone who ultimately wants to create a course marketplace and offer licenses to other instructors.
Tips to Make the Most of Your First Course-Building Experience on LearnDash
Before you begin creating your course :
- Create a course outline with the title of each module and/or lesson, a description of what your students will learn in each, and a list of downloadable resources you want to include.
- Create or curate the content for each lesson, including writing the text, creating videos, recording audios, selecting photos, writing quizzes, or designing infographics (Remember: it doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective! Play to your strengths and don’t spend a lot of time learning new techniques in the beginning).
- Decide whether you will upload videos directly to your website or host them on Vimeo, Wistia, or somewhere else, and take care of any uploading to those hosting sites.
- Decide whether you will integrate payment into the course or manage that elsewhere and what payment processor you will use.
- Decide whether you will create a sales page and where that will live.
- Decide whether you will want to add forums, badges, or a social media component to your course. Make a list of the plugins you need to add those functionalities (such as bbPress, BadgeOS, and BuddyPress) and what integrations (such as Slack or Gradebook) you want to include.
When you are ready to begin building your course online:
- Read and follow the Getting Started Help Page document, “Best Practices.”
- Enroll in the LearnDash course (on Demo.LearnDash.com), “Make a LearnDash Site in 1-Hour,” and either build your course as you follow along, or immediately after (Note: The first 16 minutes are about starting a website from scratch. Info on how to upload the LearnDash plugin begins at 16:57. Information about the ecommerce pieces occur after the 45:00 mark.)
- Upload the Uncanny LearnDash Toolkit plugin and follow the information in the Uncanny Owl Knowledge Base to turn on extended functionality, especially for lesson auto-completion and certificate delivery.
LearnDash delivers on its promise of dynamic and engaging courses, provided you’re skilled enough (or patient enough) to unlock all of its potential. It offers a large number of integrations, upgrades, and compatibility with other plugins that allows an experienced WordPress creator, or a resourceful and adventurous newbie, to create a highly professional, totally custom online course for a fraction of what a third-party platform costs.
This is a great tool if you want something that will grow with you, your skills, and your business over time.
However, if you are a first-time course creator who is in a hurry to get a course online, not well-versed in WordPress, or want all of your tech in one place, this may not be the best place to start your course creation journey.
If you, too, are new to the world of WordPress plugins, how comfortable are you with trying one for building your course? Do you feel the opportunities for a custom site on your own virtual real estate outweigh any potential frustrations you might encounter? I’d love to discuss your thoughts. Leave me a note in the comments below!
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