I recently decided to build a new LMS demo site with WooThemes Sensei, which gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of time setting Sensei up and integrated it into an existing site. Since most of Uncanny Owl’s platform consulting work involves LearnDash, it was great to explore a different approach to a WordPress LMS solution. In this article I’ll discuss some of what I really liked about Sensei (compared to LearnDash) and where I have concerns about using the plugin to deliver training.
First, some history. Uncanny Owl started working with WordPress LMS products just over a year ago. At that time we did a very comprehensive internal review of what was available and settled on the one we platform we thought was best—LearnDash. We actually purchased a copy of Sensei to try over a year ago, used it for a week, and then asked for a refund after finding it couldn’t deliver what we needed. A lot has changed over the past year, however, and our excitement about some of the new Sensei features encouraged us to see how far they’ve come.
Both Sensei and LearnDash do a great job of doing what they need to do: structuring courses and lessons, tracking learning progress and delivering a good user experience. This article is focused on the differences between the products and what did and didn’t work for me as a WordPress user extending my site with an LMS plugin.
What I Like About Sensei
Reporting. The first thing I checked out after installing Sensei (and its associated free plugins) was the admin interface, and it was great to see reporting at the top. Sensei gave me a good overview of my course content and enrolled users, and I loved being able to drill down to see more detail. This is a lot easier to work with than the CSV export that LearnDash produces that includes very limited information. Having said that, I don’t like how Sensei scores things. More on that later.
Messaging. I really like that Sensei includes more notification types, especially compared to LearnDash (where reporting is limited). It’s also nice to see private messaging that doesn’t require another plugin and is built around facilitated programs. Having said that, Sensei does go a bit overboard with notifications. Getting an email every time a lesson was completed was painful. I just want them for quizzes! (Sensei quizzes have to be included in lessons, which may be part of why emails go out for all lessons.)
Sharing. It’s great to have social sharing available for learning programs and to be able to see and retrieve certificates easily. These things are much easier to set up with Sensei than LearnDash.
Certificates—for some things. Speaking of certificates, Sensei has a much better way to design certificates than LearnDash. Getting text elements laid out correctly in LearnDash is painful, while Sensei doesn’t required you to tweak HTML and CSS until things are just right. It’s also nice to see that certificates are available on course completion rather than having to be associated with quizzes. (Of course, I’d rather Sensei also make them available for quizzes.)
What I Didn’t Like
Cost. An unlimited license for LearnDash is $79. Sensei starts at $149 for 1 site and goes up to $299 to use on 25 sites. But it doesn’t stop there. If I want to sell access to courses with recurring subscriptions, the solution suggested by WooThemes requires almost $300 in additional plugins. LearnDash includes integrations with free membership plugins. Want BadgeOS for gamification? With LearnDash the integration is free, with Sensei it’s paid. Given the trouble I had getting Sensei working with our third-party theme, picking up a WooThemes WordPress theme is recommended and another expense. The extra costs really add up.
My WooThemes Support Ticket
Support. LearnDash has a fantastic support site. There’s a very active user community with lots of solutions and user-contributed content; there’s also comprehensive documentation with screencasts. When I post in the forum or send in a support request, I generally hear back the same day. Sensei? There’s a much smaller forum. Documentation is rough and incomplete. (A quick example: out of the box my system emails were broken because font size is 350% and line height is 100%, so wrapping is a mess. This page talks about customizing emails and then links to a page for more info, but that page that doesn’t even mention emails. The guidance about changing code to display sidebars properly was also incorrect for my theme.) And as for support, well, it’s really lacking. I’m still waiting on a reply to some followup questions that I submitted over a week ago. When I click the link to the ticket in my email, I see the page above. I get the feeling that means my questions won’t get answered.
Learner Workflow. LearnDash handles lessons the way I’d expect. If there’s no quiz or assignment, click a button to indicate completion and move to the next lesson. If there’s a quiz, advance after passing the quiz. With Sensei passing a lesson is really celebrated. You click a button, just like LearnDash, but this time there’s a big message congratulating you for finishing a lesson—which might have been as basic as reading a paragraph. Then you’re encouraged to share it on social media (I want this in some places, just not every lesson). Then you have to hunt around beneath those things to figure out how to manually navigate to the next lesson.
Lots of customization needed
Designed for WooThemes. Setting up LearnDash doesn’t generally break sites. Setting up Sensei broke my site. First my sidebar was gone, then it was beneath the rest of my content, and I ended up spending hours on PHP and CSS changes to get the look & feel I wanted restored. WooThemes has documentation for the sidebar issue, but it suggests copying some div containers from a theme PHP file which, at least in my case, turned out to not include enough containers. I don’t like the forced title at the top of every page either, and why does Sensei want to make its widgets to look so different than the ones I already have?
Less Intuitive. I’ve used a lot of WordPress plugins, including some LMS ones, and I start using them by exploring rather than reading a manual. That led to a lot of frustration with Sensei. I wanted a new certificate, so I went to Lessons > Certificates > Add New Certificate. No, that doesn’t work, and I still have no idea why there’s a way to add certificates there (the section is for displaying earned certificates). What I actually wanted was a certificate template. When I started to create learning objects, I figured the first thing I would need is a course, and the Lessons menu included entries for courses, lessons and certificates. There was only one “Add New” entry, however, and it turned out that was just for lessons. I got confused again when I wanted to add a quiz to a lesson and Sensei told me to add one from the Lesson Quiz box when it really meant Quiz Questions. Over in the Sensei menu, I’m still getting used to Certificate Templates being highlighted no matter what section I’m actually in.
Less Scalable. I’ve worked on programs with up to 10 courses, each with an average of 10 lessons. During development, I disable lesson progression to make testing and review easy; with LearnDash, it’s a simple switch within courses. With Sensei, every lesson has a prerequisite and there’s no central switch for progression. Furthermore, the list of prerequisites includes lessons for all courses, so hundreds of lessons could potentially be displayed in a drop-down list. I can’t imagine how confusing it must be to go from no prerequisites to lesson progression when going live with a complex program . The default styling for Sensei also seems intended for a handful of courses and lessons, not dozens.
Quizzes and Score Tracking. I really don’t like the way Sensei captures completion data. When learners complete a lesson, Sensei marks it as passing with a score of 100%. It’s a very strange approach. As for quizzes, which should actually track scores, what’s available is very limited compared to LearnDash. There are no sorting or multiple answer question types, which I really tend to rely on for variety. HTML is similarly excluded, which adds a lot of flexibility in LearnDash. Sensei also has far less control, including for pagination, statistics, providing feedback and reinforcement to learners, etc.
Certificate Names. When learners complete a course, they should be recognized for their accomplishment and certificates are a great way to do this. Unfortunately, Sensei doesn’t seem to want to actually put their names on them. Sensei can only put the user’s “display name” on a certificate, so the documentation suggests advising users to update their profiles and change their “display name” to their first and last name. That’s completely impractical.
Sensei or LearnDash?
If you’re already embedded in the WooThemes ecosystem and use WooCommerce and their themes, it probably makes a lot of sense to go with Sensei. The Sensei demo site by WooThemes looks great, so if your needs are basic, picking up the Hub theme they use along with Sensei is likely a good choice. Import the dummy data, customize as needed and you’re off and running. For other sites, like you can see with Uncanny Owl’s Sensei demo site, expect a bit more work.
With better reporting, notifications and messaging, I can also see appeal for sites providing instructor-led virtual programs exclusively. If you typically spend time on the admin side of WordPress, have notifications enabled and have a relatively small group of learners, then I feel like it might be easier to stay connected with their activities using Sensei. (LearnDash does offer a Pro Panel for additional insight, but it’s quite limited.)
LearnDash is likely a better choice for everyone else, especially when you factor in cost and support. At Uncanny Owl we support clients on both platforms, but for most new projects, we expect LearnDash to continue being the better fit.