Evaluating the best WordPress LMS plugins of 2017

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How do you choose from the best WordPress LMS plugins?

A few years ago I decided to watch a show that I'd never heard about. It was called The Wire. I simply found it, decided to watch it, and then loved it.

Like most people who discover something amazing, I rushed to recommend the series to some friends of mine. They looked at me like I was from space.

Note—I should have noticed that all the seasons were immediately available to me, suggesting that it wasn't a new show. But that didn't register.

It became clear, as I spoke with several friends, that they all knew of the show and had watched it years before I had. In short, I sounded like a bit of a moron because something I found new and amazing was indeed amazing but not nearly new.

What does this have to do with evaluating the best WordPress LMS plugins in 2017? Simply this.

If you haven't heard by now that selling online courses is a big deal, then I want to spare you the pain of suddenly discovering it and rushing out to tell your friends. Likely, they already know it.

And the challenge you have now is determining what criteria you'll use, and what options you have, so you too can get started with your online education site.

Whenever I do comparisons, I start by determining the key questions that matter to me. After all, the questions will shape how I see the world. So I want to share with you four key questions and introduce you to several key features so that you can determine, on your own, which ones are important to you.

Which model are you using?

The first thing you have to decide is what kind of online learning site you're building. You may wonder what the different models are, and I'll share with you a few of the kinds I've worked on, but this isn't an exhaustive list.

The single learner navigating a specific path:

There are sites that teach a single subject – How to build a guitar, for example. In this scenario, you have a set of lessons that people navigate from start to finish. There aren't a lot of paths to choose from. They take lesson one, followed by lesson two, and so on, until they reach the end.

A team of learners navigating a specific path:

There are sites that teach a single subject but allow you to purchase the content for a team. This is like the earlier model but may add some leaderboard gamification to drive students to achieve based on a bit of competition. It also introduces some complexity around who pays and how that differs from the enrolled team (from a workflow perspective).

A single learner choosing their own adventure:

Most of the learning marketplaces function like this, where a student can choose from tons of different courses (each with multiple lessons). On a site like this, you might learn not only how to build a guitar, but also how to write a song, and how to get over stage fright.

A single learner choosing from several paths:

When you think about universities, they function like this. You can choose from several different majors, but once you do, there will be some specific courses you have to take, and then several options to customize your journey. The complexity introduced here has a lot to do with dependencies and pre-requisites between courses.

A single learner engaging others in a cohort:

In most of the online learning models above (other than the team one), a student can often feel dumped into a technology landscape without anyone else. But if you've ever done online coursework at universities, you soon discover that a big part of the educational dynamic is working in teams and with your fellow students. There are several dynamics (from a technical perspective) that get introduced here, so you need to know if this is what you're going for.

What's your budget?

Please don't say free. You can't tell me you want to build an online business and not spend anything. After all, you couldn't open up a retail store and not pay rent.

But with that said, different solutions will cost different amounts of money. Some of the plugins start free but have extensions that will cost you money. Others will have a fee that you'll likely have to pay every single year.

What's most important here is that you have a healthy understanding of what you're asking for and a healthy budget to make sure you get it.

I've said it a million times but I'll say it again. No single plugin will do everything you ever dreamed of. So you have to decide if you're going to also allocate funds for custom development (which will also impact which plugin you choose), or whether you're going to shape your expectations and desires by the budget you have available.

As you'll see from this list, even when the initial price is free,  you should likely have anywhere from $100 – $300 ready for just the LMS plugin part of your project.

What kind of site are you building?

Different people have different ideas of the site they're trying to create. That's why it's important that you don't just tell these companies that you need an LMS plugin. Be more specific about what you're building. It will help them help you know if their product is a good fit.

  • Are you building an online course? This is a single course site, where people can buy and get access to your content.
  • Are you building an online community where they can take courses? This references the interactivity you're looking for.
  • Are you building a marketplace? This means you'll create multiple courses that are available to students.
  • Are you building a multi-vendor marketplace? This means you'll create a store where multiple authors can sell their own courses.

Of course there are other kinds of sites you might be building, but these are four different terms that may help you explain what you're building.

Context is critical

Most of the times when you show up (virtually) at someone's doorstep to ask those pre-sale questions about their product, you show up with tons of assumptions.

Let me try to help you with a big one here: just because two WordPress plugins get installed on the same site doesn't mean they'll talk to each other or integrate easily.

So as you evaluate the LMS plugins for your project, you should also be prepared to answer these three core questions. It will give the conversation you're having with a vendor some context. And that's critical to them helping you.

Will you need the LMS plugin to also manage the payment process? Or do you need it to integrate with a payment solution?

If you already have an eCommerce solution in place, or a payment gateway in place, that you don't plan to change, then it's critical that you define that early on with a vendor. They may or may not integrate with it. Both LearnDash and WP Courseware do a ton of integrations, which will help you. But even they have their limits. So start there. Explain your existing infrastructure so that they can tell you if they'll be a good fit or not.

Are you planning to integrate this LMS plugin with an existing membership solution? Which one?

Like the payment gateway question, some people have an existing membership solution that they're already using on their site. You need to be clear about this up front unless you're fine to change it. But if you're not, it may be a filter that determines which plugins will work for you – based on the integrations they have in place.

Do you have an email management system that you are already using?

I know it's frustrating to find out that the LMS you've chosen doesn't integrate with the email system you think everyone should support. But just because you're using it doesn't mean everyone else is. So be up front, and clear, about who you're using (MailChimp, ConvertKit, etc) and ask whether the LMS plugin vendor supports them. Finding out up front will save you a lot of time when evaluating these plugins.

Which features are essential to you?

As you start exploring the five alternatives above, because these are the best WordPress LMS plugins available in 2017, you need to be clear on what you want. That's up to you. None of those companies can help you with that.

So it makes sense that you do some of your own evaluation of the site you're building so that you know which are your “must-have” features and that will help you determine which of these plugins work for you.

So let's dig into key LMS features.

Content Dripping:

You need this feature if you want to release your course material over time. You may make lessons available over a 2 month period, for example, to make sure they're coming back. This is often governed by a delay of days between lessons, but some vendors may also allow you to specify the actual dates when something becomes available.

Course Progress:

You likely need this feature. All of you. Because who wants to create an online course that doesn't give the student feedback on where they're at. But what you want to know is how easy is it to determine where it goes, and how easy is it to style it? That's what I would be asking about.

Quizzes:

You need this feature if you want to ensure that a student has some level of new knowledge before moving on to the next lesson. That uses the passing of a quiz as a pre-req for progress. But you can also use quizzes to help you grade students. And you can use pre-quiz strategies for assessments, so that instructors know where students are, in terms of existing knowledge, at the start of a course. Others use quizzes to manage course completion. There are several things about quizzes you may or may not care about:

  • Question types: does the plugin support the kinds of questions you plan to ask?
  • Question timers: does the plugin support a clock that counts down as the student is answering a question?
  • Question banks: instead of the same questions each time, can you create a quiz from a set of questions, pulled randomly?
  • Quiz passing scores / retakes: does the plugin allow you to specific what score passes, and if they fail, can they retake it?

Certificates:

You need this feature if you're creating a site where students who complete a course get something to take away. This certificate likely has the student's name and info, the course info, and some cool background. Can you upload your own background? Can it be delivered as a PDF? Can you have different layouts / styles for different courses? These are the questions you'll want to know.

Course Attachments:

You need this feature if your online course isn't just a bunch of text or videos. Are you offering PDFs? How is that getting integrated in? Just files that get pushed into WordPress like images? If you do that, people may be able to find them via Google and download them for free.

Assignments:

You need this feature if you plan to create “homework” for your students. You not only need a simple way to assign the homework, but also to manage it and grade it. Is it easy for people to upload / deliver their assignments? Or will you be getting your email inbox filled with attachments? Figuring this out will help you narrow down which plugin is right for you.

Badgets / Gamification:

Several months ago I wrote much more about the need for gamification in online learning. I won't go into all that detail right here, but if you plan to have points, leaderboards, and/or badges of completion as students move through your material, then this will be a requirement for the plugin you use.

Pre-Requisites:

You need this feature if you want to limit who can take a course or when someone can proceed to the next lesson. The big deal here, as you look at the various plugins, is to determine what counts as a pre-requisite passing. Is it just a lesson or a course completion? Is it tied to taking and passing a quiz? What about earning a badge tied to some behavior (like two posts in the forum in the last week)? Knowing what you need will help you determine who can provide it.

Payment Gateways:

I mentioned it before as one of the questions you'll want to be ready to answer. But you will likely also have your own questions. Which payment gateways do you need and which ones do they integrate with. In reality, it's often one of the first things I dig into because normally my clients can't change their payment gateways.

Coupons:

Now you may not need this feature if you're using a different eCommerce engine to support your site like WooCommerce. But if you're using the LMS plugin with a payment gateway like Stripe, you may want to have the feature integrated with your plugin. So determine if they support it, and then what kinds of features they support—fixed discount, percentage discount, date expirations, etc.

BuddyPress / bbPress integrations:

Some folks that build online ed sites on WordPress also use BuddyPress for student profiles and social networking. Others may roll in bbPress as a forum for the course or entire site. If you plan to use these, then you need to know which plugins integrate with these other plugins.

Progress Emails:

You need this. Not just because you want to be able to send students updates on when they reach key milestones, but also because you want to know who hasn't logged in for a few weeks and use email to invite them back into the course. While the email itself shouldn't be delivered from your site (for the most part), the plugin should allow you to use transactional email services (mailgun) or your marketing automation services (ConvertKit).

Commissions / Affiliate Programs:

Most plugins don't do much in this space, but for online learning, you have to know this is critical. Your existing students are the best evangelists for your course, and that means you should be able to provide proper incentives to make their recommendations. So ask if your LMS plugin supports an integration or has an internal commissions program.

The tech side of the best LMS plugins

When you evaluate these plugins, there are five technical things you should be watching out for.

  1. Does this plugin work with any theme? The presentation of the site is the domain of the theme. But you need to know if this plugin only works with a specific theme, or if the plugin folks have done the work to make it work with most themes.
  2. Does this plugin present well on mobile? Even though plugins shouldn't be focused on presentation, they can do things that make your mobile version of the site look horrible. So find out quick.
  3. Can this plugin handle high loads of traffic? This is hard to know and you likely want to get some help. But it's worth doing before you build an entire solution on a plugin that can't handle load.
  4. Will this plugin work on a multisite installation? Sometimes the way you set up your system will require WordPress multisite. If that's the case, make sure your LMS plugin supports it.
  5. Will it need to be compliant with a specific eLearning standard? If you're building a solution in a corporate or university setting, you may need SCORM or TIN CAN compliance.

Wrapping things up

At this point, you're probably pretty tire of all the things you have to think about. But this is going to be your business. You wouldn't rent retail space without looking at the foot traffic and traffic flow to the property, would you?

What I've tried to do, over these 2800+ words is give you a framework for understanding your own needs, understanding better what you're building, so that you can have an intelligent conversation (pre-sales) with the top five vendors in the space.

Each of these LMS plugins delivers tons of value. Some are better than others. But the reality is that the right one is more a product of your needs than their features. My hope is that as you get clear on what you need, you'll be able to make a choice easily.

And let's remember that the plugin is only part of it. You still need great video, great audio, and the best WordPress hosting you can find for serious sites like the one you're building.

About Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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