The Uncanny Owl Blog
We recently helped a client in the UK launch English in 30 Minutes, a new online learning program that helps students and young professionals improve their English skills. The site had been in development for a year before Uncanny Owl became involved, with work performed by both site owners and 2 other developers. When we took over, functionality was lacking and there were multiples issues with both design and operation. Uncanny Owl’s mandate was to do whatever was needed to create a functional and engaging site that made it easy for people to learn English.
Uncanny Owl did everything from copywriting and design to custom plugin development and implementation. Using LearnDash for LMS capabilities, we created a robust learning platform that can accommodate thousands of global learners.
Issues and Solutions
The site we took over was broken in a number of key areas. Because we didn’t know what had been created or how, we ended up abandoning the existing WordPress platform. We were able to salvage some course materials, like quizzes, but most elements needed to be rebuilt. While we never like to have clients pay to essentially perform the same work twice, the state of the platform and our own peace of mind left us with few alternatives.
The biggest challenge we faced with the English in 30 Minutes site was the sheer size of the program. It was (and remains) the largest LearnDash implementation we’ve undertaken, with approximately 2,300 unique LearnDash posts across 25 courses. By default, the LearnDash plugin looks up topics and completion status across all courses when it generates sidebars and table elements, which significantly affected performance for the site. We were seeing average load times of 12 seconds on LearnDash pages, which was unacceptable for users and also made it painful on the admin side. By changing LearnDash core code so that MySQL queries weren’t as broad, we were able to get LearnDash load times under 2 seconds. Developing this solution was a huge win for us and prompted this reaction from our client: “Guys – THANK YOU! I keep playing with it, jumping from page to page…incredible! I am over the moon with this!!!”
English in 30 Minutes was also the first LearnDash site we’ve deployed that doesn’t use a visible sidebar for navigation. As the program is very heavy on video-based training, the learner experience for videos had to be very strong. To accommodate a large post area, for video as well as some of the interactive games on the site, we created a collapsible sidebar that’s hidden by default. When the learner needs it, they click a prominent icon and the sidebar slides out. As the program is generally completed linearly, ad hoc navigation between lessons and topics doesn’t need to be used often and lends itself better to being hidden by default.
To improve navigation with the sidebar hidden, we added custom breadcrumb capabilities to the site. Out of the box, breadcrumbs typically don’t work on LearnDash sites, because the theme doesn’t know how to look up relationships between LearnDash courses, lessons and topics. Our plugin does, and it makes navigation up to higher points in the program easy.
Key Architecture Details
English in 30 Minutes is a large program that’s sold directly to consumers on a membership basis. It leverages an affiliate program for marketing, some light gamification, interactive games (including flashcards and matching), account sharing restrictions and more.
We used Total as the theme for the site (using a child theme and custom plugins). We chose Total because it generally works well with LearnDash, it’s reasonably straightforward for clients to manage, and it does what we need it to do. It also has a reasonably large userbase and active development.
Here’s a list of some key plugins used on the English in 30 Minutes site:
The live site is hosted at Flywheel. The site performs well there, the interface is nice for clients, and the managed services means we can focus on the site rather than the infrastructure.
Englishin30Minutes.com has only been live for 1 week, but so far it’s had almost 300 unique visitors from around the world with no marketing. Getting the first unsolicited sign-up for an account was a big step, and we’re excited about English in 30 Minute’s growth!
Of course, our most important measures are making sure our client is happy with our work and is left with a capable learning platform. Here’s what he had to say about that:
I really cannot speak highly enough about the guys at Uncanny Owl. They were actually my 3rd design team for this project and I only wish I had found them first! Their commitment, innovation, advice, patience and support have been outstanding, even when I fell behind at times with my work schedule, and I make a point of using their name in recommendation in any discussion I have regarding the site. They definitely went the extra mile with this one, in particular the page load speed fix and breadcrumb plugin were very impressive indeed, and I look forward to a long-term partnership with them for the future.
Visit englishin30minutes.com to see a sample of our work in action. It’s also a great resource (and certainly one of the most comprehensive) for learning English online!
At Uncanny Owl, we love creating flexible and powerful learning-enabled websites for our clients. They love our solutions, and we’re able to help businesses achieve important business goals while delivering engaging learner experiences.
Custom LMS solutions can be a great fit for the right company, but in most cases the costs are too high—in dollars, in time, in complexity, in maintenance requirements and in training. Not every company can afford $5,000+ implementation costs or the 2-4 months it typically takes us to go from project initiation to going live. A lot of companies out there just want the basics—an easy way to deliver self-directed training via their website—and don’t need a custom solution to achieve their goals.
Right now there’s no easy way for smaller organizations to make training available online with WordPress. Sure, you can buy an LMS plugin, but that invariably ends up being a very small part of the platform puzzle. There’s a lot that can (and does) go wrong and the learning curve ends up being a lot higher than most people expect. We’ve spent the last 2 years working on dozens of WordPress sites with learning capabilities and it’s taken this long to really get the hang of how to create a great platform.
Next month, we’ll be starting the beta phase of a WordPress product that will make it easy and inexpensive for organizations to offer training online. The product will be simple but comprehensive, flexible but worry-free. With it, you will be able to launch a complete website with all of your courses in under a week—without having to deal with theme issues, plugin integrations, hosting, ongoing maintenance or code conflicts.
We’ll be starting the platform beta next month, but we’re only making 5 spots available for participants. We want to be able to carefully monitor the first set of users, but we’ll open up more spots as we stabilize things. Beta users will be able to take advantage of a heavily discounted rate for their first 6 months of use. If you want to participate, you’ll need to apply to be considered. Here’s the type of user we’re looking for in the first wave:
- You have some course materials ready
- You know a little bit about WordPress
- You plan to sell course access, preferably on a membership basis
- You will actually use the product and so will your learners
The product will start with a limited feature set focused on delivering self-directed elearning smoothly and effectively. Eventually we will add capabilities that support things like blended learning and virtual communities, but it’s important that we nail down the basics first.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the beta or becoming a beta participant, sign up below!
LearnDash (the company) released a very exciting update on Wednesday that allows LearnDash (the plugin) to talk to over 300 third-party applications. This means that key LearnDash events, like course enrolments and completions, can now trigger actions in other applications, like adding a learner to a mailing list, sending an email, creating a help desk ticket and more. LearnDash uses Zapier to talk to other integrations, and it works really well—once you understand how to do it.
We were a bit too excited by the Zapier release and installed it as soon as it was available, and before instructions had been posted. This caused some initial confusion, both for us and one of our clients (who also wanted to jump on board). To make things a little easier, we created the screencast below to walk through the process of setting up your first zap.
We hope that was helpful!
Over the next few months we’ll be building new zaps for ourselves and our clients. If we come up with anything interesting, we’ll post it here!