LearnDash Review Revisited

A few months ago, Ken wrote a brief review of his experiences using LearnDash to develop Grade Hacks, Uncanny Owl’s study skills program. It remains our second most-visited page on this website and attracts a lot of traffic for people searching for LearnDash reviews. Since that article was originally published 6 months ago, LearnDash has gone through a number of big changes, including the release of version 2.0. Ken’s original article is now outdated in a number of areas and we thought it was time to revisit some of the problem areas to see where things stand in the current release (2.0.3 at the time of writing).

A few months ago, Ken wrote a brief review of his experiences using LearnDash to develop Grade Hacks, Uncanny Owl’s study skills program. It remains our second most-visited page on this website and attracts a lot of traffic for people searching for LearnDash reviews. Since that article was originally published 6 months ago, LearnDash has gone through a number of big changes, including the release of version 2.0. Ken’s original article is now outdated in a number of areas and we thought it was time to revisit some of the problem areas to see where things stand in the current release (2.0.3 at the time of writing).  Navigating between courses, lessons, topics and quizzes was a significant source of frustration for us early on, especially while developing large training programs. In the version of LearnDash used for the article, courses, lessons, quizzes (standard and advanced) were very distinct objects and navigation between related items was difficult. In the most recent version of LearnDash, everything is now grouped under a single LearnDash entry in the WordPress admin interface, the 2 quiz components were combined, and course objects now include related items on the editing screen (made possible by LearnDash now enforcing a 1:1 relationship between courses and lessons/quizzes/topics). All of these changes make navigation much easier and intuitive, though building out courses can still be a very tedious process. (In that area, we would love to see a way to duplicate courses that retains course objects as well as an easy way to import and export quizzes from Word.)   Quizzes have been simplified in LearnDash 2.0, with Standard and Advanced Quizzes now combined into a single “Quiz” object. It’s great to have all quiz settings and questions in a single location, but the number of options is still going to overwhelm new users. Make sure you use quiz templates to make the quiz creation process as efficient and consistent as possible!  We would still love to be able to customize LearnDash more easily and to have access to additional shortcodes. Certificates are one such example; it’s hard to retrieve someone’s certificate without either displaying the learner’s full profile or having them retake the quiz. We’d love to see a shortcode for quiz display and to display a list of courses without descriptions.   In the comments of the original article, another LearnDash user mentioned wanting a custom theme for LearnDash. In earlier days of using LearnDash we certainly agreed, and we spent a lot of time making CSS changes to get unsupported themes working seamlessly with LearnDash. With LearnDash recently confirming that they won’t develop a theme themselves, it’s great to see themes like University http://themeforest.net/item/university-education-event-and-course-theme/8412116?ref=uncannyowl now showing up that have explicit LearnDash support.   It’s great to see the positive changes with LearnDash and many of Ken’s earlier criticisms being addressed. The community is still vibrant and it’s reassuring to see development continuing at a good pace. Navigating between courses, lessons, topics and quizzes was a significant source of frustration for us early on, especially while developing large training programs. In the version of LearnDash used for the article, courses, lessons and quizzes (standard and advanced) were very distinct objects and navigation between related items was difficult. In the most recent version of LearnDash, everything is now grouped under a single LearnDash entry in the WordPress admin interface, the 2 quiz components were combined, and course objects now include related items on the editing screen (made possible by LearnDash now enforcing a 1:1 relationship between courses and lessons/quizzes/topics). All of these changes make navigation much easier and intuitive, though building out courses can still be a very tedious process. (In that area, we would love to see a way to duplicate courses that retains course objects as well as an easy way to import and export quizzes from Word.)

Quizzes have been simplified in LearnDash 2.0, with Standard and Advanced Quizzes now combined into a single “Quiz” object. It’s great to have all quiz settings and questions in a single location, but the number of options is still going to overwhelm new users. Make sure you use quiz templates to make the quiz creation process as efficient and consistent as possible!

We would still love to be able to customize LearnDash more easily and to have access to additional shortcodes. Certificates are one such example; it’s hard to retrieve someone’s certificate without either displaying the learner’s full profile or having them retake the quiz. We’d love to see a shortcode to display certificates (with a single link if you passed at least once, regardless of the number of attempts) and one to display a list of courses without descriptions.

In the comments of the original article, another LearnDash user mentioned wanting a custom theme for LearnDash. In earlier days of using LearnDash we certainly agreed, and we spent a lot of time making CSS changes to get unsupported themes working seamlessly with LearnDash. With LearnDash recently confirming that they won’t develop a theme themselves, it’s great to see themes like University now showing up that have explicit LearnDash support.

It’s great to see the positive changes with LearnDash and many of Ken’s earlier criticisms being addressed. The LearnDash community is still very vibrant and it’s reassuring to see development continuing at a good pace.

WordPress LMS Showdown: Sensei vs. LearnDash

WordPress LMSI 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 for this review. 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 quick review 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 review 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.

Broken Link

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.

Customizing Sensei

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.

WooThemes Sensei LMS Demo Site

Sensei Demo SiteEver wanted to see what Sensei looked like with a third-party theme? Maybe try it out on a platform where it could be more directly compared to LearnDash? Now you can! Uncanny Owl now has a completely functional Sensei site up at http://sensei.uncannycloud.com/. Sign in and check out some demo courses and lessons created with Sensei!

If the new Sensei site looks familiar, that’s because it’s a clone of our LearnDash demo site. We took a snapshot of that site, replaced LearnDash and iThemes Exchange with Sensei and WooCommerce (and a whole lot of other stuff) and then rebuilt the same demo lessons in Sensei. By doing this it’s a lot easier to do a side-by-side comparison of 2 big WordPress LMS plugins. Just sign in to both sites and you can take a look at the differences yourself.

Why Sensei? Well, we’re trying to expand our scope on the platform side to cover WordPress LMS solutions in general rather than just LearnDash. Right now there aren’t a lot of options online for Sensei assistance and we look forward to filling in some of that gap.

Have questions about the demo site or getting Sensei support? Send us a note or leave a comment below!

Aug 22 Update: Interested in a LearnDash and Sensei comparison? Check out our WordPress LMS showdown!

Instructor Led Training with WordPress

mLearning with WordPressFacilitated training isn’t just for the classroom and complex Learning Management Systems. Even though WordPress learning solutions are primarily targeted at self-directed programs, it is absolutely possible to build facilitated learning with them. In this post I’ll share some of the ways we do this for our clients at Uncanny Owl.

Let’s suppose you want to offer a 4-week paid course to the public. Each week, you want learners to go through some self-directed lessons (that include text, video, and offline readings), participate in online discussions with you and other learners, and then complete a weekly quiz. At the end of the 4th week everyone must complete a final test. If they pass the final test and all weekly quizzes, they’re issued a printable certificate.

WordPress probably wouldn’t be your first thought when delivering this type of common course structure, but it should be! With a few plugins, like LearnDash as your LMS and a membership plugin, it’s actually quite easy.

To build this kind of program, your first step is probably going to be to create 4 courses, 1 for each week of the program. You can then build lessons for each week that include your readings and video. Creating the quizzes and test might come next. These are the easy parts.

Schedule WordPress DateAh, but you want all participants to complete the courses at the same time, and you don’t want to give them access to content from week 2, 3 and 4 when they’re in week 1. The tricks here are using a membership plugin (which allows you to restrict access to course materials) and scheduling WordPress posts. For every course you publish you can tell WordPress when to make it available to learners. So your first course (for week 1) might be automatically published on Monday at 9AM of the first week, the second course at 9AM of the second week, etc. And by assigning the courses to membership levels, you can restrict the courses to paid participants.

Next up are the online discussion and collaboration pieces. For group discussion, add a forum tool like bbPress and create forums for each week; you can then embed them in lessons for each week. That way they’re easy for learners to find and you can stay on top of the discussion (here’s an example). For communication between session participants, BuddyPress enables private messaging and other social networking features.

That really just leaves the final test and certificate, and that’s where an LMS like LearnDash makes everything easy. The final test can have the previous quizzes as prerequisites, it can be scheduled to only be available to learners on a certain day and it can automatically generate a course certificate with the learner’s name on completion.

Of course, this is a very simple example and getting everything running properly will require some more work. As an example, you may need to stop selling the membership level for 1 session once it starts (so you don’t have people joining in week 4 and skipping the earlier discussion). And you’ll probably want to offer sessions more than once, which means expiring membership levels, incrementing course publishing dates, clearing out forums and more.

What are your own solutions for delivering instructor led training with WordPress? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Chrome Broke Captivate

Crying ManDo you retest your elearning whenever a browser update is released? If you don’t, a recent issue affecting Chrome and Captivate HTML5 content might have you reconsidering.

I was recently on our LearnDash demo site and happened to notice that the sample lesson with an embedded Captivate module stopped working. The module simply wouldn’t load. Fearing the worst (how long had visitors been staring at a broken site?) I tried the page in another browser and, lo and behold, it was still working. I did a bit of digging, searching for recent pages with the keywords “Chrome HTML5 Captivate” and discovered a very significant issue that causes the latest Chrome release to not render HTML5 Captivate files properly. Shocking! And how many other elearning developers aren’t using Chrome or checking olds course regularly, so wouldn’t know anything’s broken, and how many others would know what to search for and discover the Adobe article?

If you have publish elearning modules from Captivate 7 or 8 in HTML5, you need to visit this page and follow the instructions now. Try your modules in Chrome and see if they work. If they don’t, it’s not enough to drop the HTML file into existing content; you really do need to republish the files.  If you don’t, your users on Chrome could be having a really bad time.

LearnDash Demo Video

Our LearnDash demo site has been great to give people a taste of what can be done with LearnDash, but for companies interested in using LearnDash themselves, it’s not enough. They want to get behind the scenes and get a tour of things they might have missed on the front end.

To help companies develop better explore our LearnDash demo and get a taste of what’s going on behind the scenes, we’ve created a 6-minute screencast that goes over some of the highlights. We hope it helps in your evaluation and use of LearnDash!

Check out our LearnDash demo screencast below. Make sure you watch it on YouTube or in full-screen mode so you can read everything!

11 Reasons Hosting Your Own LMS Beats the Cloud

cloud-warning

Businesses that need easy, out-of-the-box systems to deliver training online are increasingly turning to Learning Management Systems in the cloud. Startup costs are low, they’re scalable, they can be deployed quickly, and many of them provide a great learner experience. For small audiences, infrequent learning or when simplicity is paramount, a cloud LMS is likely the right solution. But they’re not right for every situation, and for many organizations, hosting their own LMS is an overlooked—yet potentially better—solution to learning. We put together a list of 11 reasons to explain why we set many of our clients up with their own LMS (typically WordPress-driven) rather than rely on a cloud solution.

1. Your Rules

With a cloud LMS you’re stuck with what’s offered. Customization is generally limited to branding and some basic options, which may or may not include the functionality you really want. Want to mix facilitated sessions with self-directed modules? Maybe integrate event planning, webinars, ecommerce and social sharing? What about custom automated emails and reporting? With your own WordPress-based LMS, like the ones we offer our clients, you’re only limited by your imagination. Choose from thousands of widely-tested plugins to add capabilities or dig into the code and make the system do whatever you want it to.

2. Your Data

What happens when a cloud LMS vendor disappears, has a catastrophic failure, you outgrow it or new policies require it to be hosted externally? What if your data privacy rules mean storing data in specific countries? You’re out of luck with a cloud solution. With your own LMS you own the database—and the data. Whether it’s for custom reporting, data portability, easy batch changes or something else, direct access to the learner database means more flexibility and less reliance on a third party.

3. Your Security Standards

I’ve already written about the security practices of cloud LMS vendors before. They’re generally lacking. With your own system, you can apply as much or as little security as you need. Restrict access to specific IP blocks, build in 2-factor authentication, put the system behind your firewall—there are no restrictions on how you secure your own learning systems.

4. Lower Total Cost of Ownership

Yes, getting started with a cloud LMS system is very inexpensive. But then you keep paying forever, potentially spending thousands of dollars monthly as your learning programs grow in popularity. Once that happens, it can be very difficult to migrate away from a cloud provider to a solution that’s more cost-effective. Yes, setting up your own LMS costs significantly more initially, but the ongoing costs—regardless of the number of users—can be as low as $0 if you can leverage existing infrastructure.

5. Nothing Disappears Tomorrow

If a cloud LMS vendor disappears, so do your courses and data. When was their last backup, and do you have a copy of your data? With your own LMS, your platform can’t disappear tomorrow because you own it (and take the necessary steps to keep it safe). Sure, there’s a risk that the creator of the tools you use could stop supporting them, but you never risk losing your platform and data. And you’ll have plenty of developers and access to the code to lend a hand if you need it.

6. More Development Support

Need extended support or customization for a cloud product? Chances are you’re locked into using the vendor. With your own solution, like one based on WordPress, there are thousands of developers ready to help out and many active development communities. You’re not tied to one company and competition means better pricing and expertise when you need assistance.

7. Your Systems

Maybe you’d like to use Single Sign On access for your LMS so your staff don’t need yet another password to remember. Or maybe you’d like tight integration with your website to maintain the same look & feel and maybe even the same user profiles. With a cloud service, integrations with your existing systems are often difficult or even impossible. After all, you’re limited to whatever capabilities they want to offer.

8. Better Performance

Simply put, you can’t control the performance of cloud LMS services. The near-universal U.S. hosting may not be ideal for your users in other regions, and without very expensive packages you’ll be sharing the server with other customers. With your own LMS you can build platforms that fit the exact needs of your audience and optimize them to deliver the best possible experience.

9. Unlimited Storage

Every cloud LMS plan is targeted at the generic customer and their expected needs. Have a lot of multimedia to store? You’ll probably be paying for more users than you need then. With your own LMS your courses can be as big or as little as you want—it’s defined by your infrastructure and needs, not someone else’s. This is even more important when you want to start benefiting from user-generated content.

10. Scalable

Cloud solutions say they’re scalable, but what happens if you get really big or decide the LMS suddenly needs to be hosted internally? A basic dedicated server is about as far as a cloud solution can take you. And if you ever need to get the records out, you could be in trouble—plus there’s the significant expense of recreating the programs on another platform. With your own LMS, you can put the data wherever you want, toss in additional servers and load balancing as they’re required, and never worry about hitting a ceiling.

11. Predictable

Predictability is extremely important for businesses. What happens when a cloud LMS vendor rolls out an update that changes the user experience or your reporting unexpectedly? You probably have no time to prepare and the learner/customer impact could be catastrophic. With your LMS, you control the experience and the timing of updates. Want to test them first? Throw up another instance and test things out before they go out to your audience. With a cloud solution you’re at the mercy of a vendor who controls everything, from application changes to features to data. It’s a big risk for companies that rely on a Learning Management System.

Even with all of these considerations, of course, going with an in-house LMS isn’t the right solution for everyone. But with all of the attention on cloud platforms, many companies should reconsider whether or not it’s the right solution for both their learners and their organizations. And even if it is today, what about tomorrow?

Slashing LearnDash Consulting Costs

browser-demo2LearnDash is a great low-budget LMS, but getting it (and WordPress) set up just the right way can be surprisingly time-consuming and complex. More often than not, customizations and complementary tools are needed to deliver the right user experience. For someone jumping into WordPress, an LMS and PHP for the first time, it can all be a bit overwhelming. That’s why so many companies turn to Uncanny Owl, and it’s why LearnDash now represents about 40% of our work.

Many people choose LearnDash because of the low price and simplicity compared to other Learning Management Systems. Going from a LearnDash license to a live website requires a lot of work, however, and the $5,000 to $10,000 price for a typical LearnDash implementation with Uncanny Owl was a barrier to many companies. Of course, that’s a small price to pay for the companies that spent months trying to build their own sites before turning to us! With so many LearnDash projects behind us, however, we’ve come to realize that most of our clients want the same things. They want lots of placeholders with lots of content types that they can reuse; they want everything to look pretty and be user-friendly; they want it easy for learners to find and complete lessons; and they want hand-held training so they can be independent without wasting months learning everything themselves.

To make a custom LearnDash solution more accessible, Uncanny Owl created a base platform that’s reusable rather than starting from scratch for every client. That means we save days of effort on our side and we can pass those savings on to clients. To make it as easy as possible for anyone to get started with LearnDash, we’re now offering a basic implementation that uses our base platform for just $2,500. It’s designed for businesses that want to get online quickly, don’t have a lot of obscure requirements, are short on time to devote to learning new technology and have to work with a low budget. For these clients, our new offer is probably a great starting point. Keep in mind that we can’t just drop it onto your site; a lot of customization is still required to get things ready for you, and we target a turnaround time of 2 weeks.

The new LearnDash demo site is now online at http://lms.uncannycloud.com/. If you’re just looking for a LearnDash demo to check out, keep in mind that we’ve added a lot of features and customizations to create a platform that delivers what most of our clients need. This isn’t what you should expect out of the box with LearnDash.

More details about the offer are on new LearnDash LMS page. It’s brand new, so we’d love to get your feedback about the offer in the comments section below!

Styling LearnDash Courses and Lessons

As many of our LearnDash readers  will know, the popular LMS plugin for WordPress uses custom post types for course and lesson content. That’s great for people familiar with WordPress, since it makes adding and managing content easy, but many page layout tools for WordPress don’t recognize LearnDash objects out of the box. As a result, many users assume they’re relegated to the default WordPress editor. They’re not, and in the post we’ll explore how to use Visual Composer to improve the look and feel of your LearnDash materials.

Visual Composer SettingsAt Uncanny Owl we typically use Visual Composer to design WordPress pages and posts for clients. It’s a paid plugin, bundled with many themes, that adds a drag-and-drop layout builder and a number of content elements to WordPress. When it’s first installed, Visual Composer is only available for pages and posts, not the custom post types used by LearnDash. To enable it on LearnDash pages, navigate to Settings > Visual Composer in the WordPress administration interface and make sure “sfwd-courses” and “sfwd-lessons” are both selected. The screenshot to the right shows the relevant areas.

The images below demonstrate what can be done relatively easily with Visual Composer that would take significantly more effort without it. The image on the left shows a lesson page with embedded Articulate Storyline content from Grade Hacks. Because it’s quite a lengthy lesson, we included some extra information to help learners and set context. We have a row to include a time estimate and navigation tools within the lesson (between the introduction, embedded Storyline and quiz, the page is quite long), a row to introduce the lesson and link to key resources, then a row for lesson content. Everything you see on the page uses Visual Composer elements to produce the design quickly and make it easy to maintain; the image on the right shows how we built it. Click on the screenshots to see larger images of the front end and editing views.

Edit_Lessons_‹_Grade_Hacks_—_WordPress_1Technology_-_Grade_Hacks

Visual Composer also includes a number of elements that make it much easier for us to include a variety of content types in lessons. With a raw HTML element, for example, we can include iframe code to embed Storyline and Captivate modules within lesson pages. And with a video element, it’s easy to drop in YouTube and Vimeo videos and then move them around the page to try different layouts. We hope this quick lesson helps you improve the look and feel of your LearnDash lessons. If you have any of your own layout ideas to share, please add your comments below!

Top Study Skills Program Goes Free

Grade HacksWe recently made the decision to adopt an open education model for Grade Hacks, our study skills platform. The program combines elearning courses, videos, downloadable resources, calculators and more to help high school, college and university students improve academic performance. The 30-day program has already helped hundreds of students achieve better grades in school.

The shift to a free model was made for 2 reasons. First, we want it to help as many students as possible. Making it a paid program proved a significant barrier for many students (more so than expected) and we didn’t want financial means to stand in the way of students reaching their potential. The program covers many important strategies that aren’t taught in schools and we knew we could help more students than we were reaching.

Second, the program ended up being a driver of consulting business for us. As a showcase platform on the LearnDash website, we’ve received quite a bit of traffic from organizations interested in building out their own LMS solutions. What they could see without registering, however, was very limited. By opening the site up we hope to further expand interest in Uncanny Owl consulting services.

Even though we’ll take a financial hit from opening the site up, we know it was the right move for a program geared to students. This email from a teacher (right after we issued the press release) certainly confirmed it:

I just came across this your website and it looks absolutely fantastic. I am so glad that it is free and I will be using it to help my students (at-risk students including ADHD etc.) with their study skills and learning styles.

We hope you enjoy Grade Hacks too.