WordPress the LMS: Working with LearnDash

LearnDash is a low-cost Learning Management System (LMS) plugin for WordPress.  Installing it adds LMS features to your WordPress instance, including courses, quizzes, certificates and progress reports.  In this post, I’ll review some of the ins and outs of working with LearnDash and how we used it to create Grade Hacks, our study skills program.

Installation

The WordPress admin menu after installing LearnDash.

The WordPress admin menu after installing LearnDash.

Installation of LearnDash is as straightforward as installing any plugin in WordPress.  You purchase the plugin at learndash.com, download the .zip file, and upload it to WordPress through the Plugins page.  Doing so adds new menu items to your WordPress admin panel including Lessons, Courses, Quizzes and Certificates and Advanced Quiz.

Setting up courses

Setting up your first course in LearnDash involves creating a course, then creating a lesson and associating it with the course.  If you wish to further divide your content you may create a topic and link it with a lesson*, or create a quiz and link it to a lesson.

Because the admin interface is organized by content type (course, lesson, topic, quiz) rather than by course, setting up a course is a bit of a disjointed process. You are constantly jumping between the the course, lesson, topic and quiz screens, linking them all together with course associations.  Many LMS platforms have you “select” or “enter” a course, with any subsequent actions you take applied automatically to that course.  It’s a more natural way of thinking and working because users tend to focus on one course at a time.  But due to the way LearnDash uses WordPress custom post types to implement the course, lesson, topic and quiz objects, creating that type of editing paradigm isn’t possible.

Thankfully, you eventually get used to jumping around and if you only have a few courses to develop it works quite well.  But if you intend to have many courses, with no way to filter lessons by course or topics by lesson, it could become tedious to find what you’re looking for.

After setting up a course, you must also  provide a way for users to access the course on the site’s front end, either through a menu or a link on some other page on your site.  You can link to the specific course or the default course list page (at /courses).

Creating content

A customized LearnDash lesson page.

A customized LearnDash lesson page.

Other than quizzes, LearnDash does not provide any content creation tools beyond the standard WordPress post/page authoring interface.  We leveraged the excellent Visual Composer plugin to set up some nice page layouts with sections to related resources and exercises.  We used Articulate Storyline to create content that provided a more immersive, interactive experience than static text and images.  Using shortcodes, we then embedded the Storyline content in several formats to target the various devices our users may be using to view the content.  On desktop and laptop, we instructed WordPress to display the Flash-based Storyline content, as this was “truest” to what we saw in the Storyline authoring environment.  On iPad, the content was displayed in the Articulate Player app, which provided a nice “native” experience for the learner. On other platforms, the system falls back to HTML5.

For quiz creation, LearnDash currently offers the most powerful assessment tools of any WordPress-based LMS, unfortunately wrapped in an awkward interface.  Functionality is accessed through standard or advanced quiz types, with standard being too basic for many applications and advanced offering a dizzying array of options.  Both types use  different interfaces for managing questions and you can’t switch between the two, so you may find yourself halfway through the creation of a standard quiz only to realize you need the functionality of an advanced quiz and have to start over.  The quiz UI could really use an overhaul that creates a single, unified quiz interface that exposes the most commonly used controls while hiding the rest for power users.

User Experience

The default course homepage using the "Twenty Fourteen" WordPress template.

The default course homepage using the “Twenty Fourteen” WordPress template.

Out of the box, the LearnDash user experience is quite good, providing an intuitive course/lesson/topic structure which works well for most situations.  Visually, course and lesson pages were redesigned in the version 1.5 release and now provide a simple, pleasing interface to the user.  You’ll run into small niggles here and there though; for example, after successfully completing a quiz, the learner must then click a button labeled “Click here to continue” for their progress to be recorded.  If they instead leave the quiz by some other method or close the window, their progress is lost and they are forced to retake the quiz.  The plugin author is aware of this issue and has promised a fix.

The experience of using WordPress as an LMS is also not without its quirks.  Logging into WordPress does not, by default, change the site’s menus or navigation, which means that logged-in users may have a hard time distinguishing between marketing pages and paid content.  We used the Nav Menu Roles plugin to display different menu items to logged-in users, which created the impression of a separate public site and learner portal.

Customizability

LearnDash provides a number of options for customizing your LMS, as well as shortcodes for outputting various types of LearnDash content on any page or widget.  Like most plugins, LearnDash can be customized through CSS overrides in your template files or a CSS plugin.  Advanced developers used to working with WordPress hooks, however, will be disappointed. LearnDash includes few actions and filters, and those that are included are poorly documented.  LearnDash also does not support template overrides, so for major customizations you’re stuck making changes to core files.

Support

The LearnDash plugin author, Justin Ferriman, is very responsive to customer feedback and maintains an active support forum available to paying customers only.  Users who post a question will usually receive a response within a day.

Conclusion

LearnDash is probably the most full-featured LMS plugin available for WordPress today.  It’s still early in its development, but it’s being updated quickly and once you get used to it you’ll find it’s capable of delivering a solid experience for your learners at a low cost.

In a future blog post we’ll cover the ins and outs of using LearnDash and WooCommerce to sell your courses online.

*In version 1.5.0.0, in addition to assigning topics to lessons you must also assign them to courses for them to be tracked properly.  This seems redundant since you assign topics to lessons, which are themselves assigned to courses, and will hopefully be updated in a future release.

Looking for Compliance Training?

compliance-trainingUncanny Owl can help! Compliance training is one of the highest-growth areas of workplace training and it increasingly needs to be about more than just checking off boxes. With a recent survey finding that the frequency of compliance communications increased by 51%, and PwC reporting more scrutiny by regulators and auditors of program effectiveness, compliance training is on every company’s radar.

Our new overview of compliance training outlines some of the reasons that elearning solutions by Uncanny Owl are a great way to deliver elearning programs that reduce risk, costs and instances of non-compliance. More than just an easier way to track compliance training completion, our elearning programs let companies track performance trends and behaviours changes. They’re also fun and interactive!

To find out more about how we can help with your compliance training, tell us about your project.

What BYOD Means for eLearning

BYOD eLearningBring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies are quickly gaining enterprise support and many elearning programs aren’t ready. In the past, elearning professionals could design and test for a handful of devices and be confident that their materials would work. That’s all changing. A 2013 Cisco study revealed that 9 in 10 Americans currently use their phones for work purposes, and 62% of companies planned to support BYOD officially by the end of 2013.

In a recent article on eLearning Industry, I reflected on the effect BYOD will have on elearning. Design and testing will require significantly more attention, and testing tools like Sauce Labs and eLearningQA may soon become part of the elearning professional’s arsenal. Mobile and HTML5 will also figure heavily into BYOD elearning strategies.

To find out more, check out the full article .

First eLearning Project? Start Here

elearning projectA lot of our website visitors come from Google and are looking into elearning for the first time. I’m sure it’s the same for many elearning companies; new clients find you because they need web-based training, but they don’t necessarily know what’s involved or how projects work. We really want people to know we’re a trusted partner that’s looking out for their best interests, so we decided to put together some guidance to help businesses tackle their first elearning projects.

To help businesses, Uncanny Owl now offers a free 7-day email course to introduce businesses to elearning projects. We don’t want to mislead businesses or sell services that don’t add significant value, so the email program we created is simply to help businesses make informed choices, whether it’s with us or with someone else. We cover whether or not elearning is the right choice, how to prepare for elearning, how to promote success, how to choose a vendor, how to manage implementations and how to measure outcomes.

If you’re a business interested in elearning, sign up below to learn more about elearning projects!


If you’re another vendor reading this blog and want to create something similar, we’re happy to provide some technical details. The sign-up form is integrated into a few pages on our website with custom code, but there are great plugins available if you have room in your sidebar. The form is linked to a Mailchimp list, which is where we set up Autoresponders to deliver staggered emails. The course content is all original; if you offer something similar, please don’t steal our lessons! 🙂

We hope you enjoy the course!

Migrating Manuals to iPads & Tablets – Part 1

offline ipadThe request sounds simple enough: take paper-based training manuals and turn them into something that’s iPad-friendly. There are lots of iPad apps that support formats like Word, PDF and EPUB, so how difficult could it be? The problem is that very few apps provide all of the key benefits of going paperless, such as centralized syncing with offline viewing, version control, embedded audio and video, easy navigation and linked documents.

Here were the client’s requirements:

  • a simple development workflow that avoided complicated and expensive authoring tools
  • the ability to push out updated guides automatically
  • offline viewing when no internet connection was available
  • embedded videos
  • links between guides

First Attempt, First Failure

We started with a Word to Adobe Acrobat workflow. This lets authors create everything they need, publish to PDF and then add multimedia and hyperlinks in Acrobat with minimal training. To take care of automatic updates and offline syncing, we decided to use Dropbox. It pushes files out automatically when an internet connection is available and “favourite” files are available offline. Dropbox also supported embedded video (one of few PDF readers that did). Unfortunately, it didn’t support links between files, but that was identified as a non-critical requirement that we could work around.

This solution worked well until Dropbox released version 3.0 for iOS halfway through the project. Video capability was dropped. Where video used to be, a big white box now greeted users.

The Solution

The Dropbox update meant we had to find a new solution. Luckily we discovered Documents by Readdle, which supported syncing with Dropbox, video in PDFs, and, surprisingly, links between documents. Syncing worked, video worked, updates worked, and best of all, the app was completely free. Our Word to Acrobat to Dropbox to Readdle Documents solution worked and was well received by the client.

Of course, some tradeoffs had to be made to keep things simple and cost-effective. Content updates can be challenging because they require republishing Word files and adding multimedia and hyperlinks in Acrobat again. Our client expects very infrequent updates, so it works for our needs, but might not work for other situations. Syncing is also a bit cumbersome in that the Documents app has to be open for the sync to happen; it’s not as simple as just having the iPad within wireless range for updates to be pulled down. Someone has to open the app.

After developing this solution, we were asked to create an alternative for iPads that will always have an internet connection. Stay tuned for our solution!

Pitching eLearning to Small Businesses

small business elearningI’m still new to elearning consulting and marketing my business. My partner and I have a really broad set of skills, so we started off by saying we did “everything”, which of course meant that nobody knew what Uncanny Owl did. Worse, our networks aren’t that big (I was at the same company for 9 years) and we quickly discovered that all of the big corporate projects we could do in our sleep weren’t interested in an unknown company with a small team. Forget Google; they only found companies through word of mouth and existing relationships. Of course, even though we knew that, we continued to pitch to the big companies in big company language because that’s all we knew.

That changed a few days ago. I went to my first networking workshop hosted by our regional chamber of commerce. My original plan was to make an appearance and find out what they do, knowing that there are very few big companies in the region and even fewer doing elearning. How much benefit could there really be in talking to small business owners? So I started the morning talking about what I thought I did (“I create online training for large corporate audiences”) and had some awkward discussions. But I kept talking to people, and I kept listening to figure out if there was a way I could help them.

As it turned out, there was. The small business owners I met shared some similar traits: they had a lot of expertise, they wanted to grow, and they were open to new ideas. Some of them actually offered training and coaching locally. Others had products or services that weren’t easy to understand. These were all problems that we could help with! We can sell expertise and make things simple with elearning. Our big local competitors weren’t targeting this market at all and, as luck would have it, we’re one of the few companies with a lot of expertise in learning platforms that integrate an LMS with WordPress, which many small companies use for their websites.

So I changed my pitch. And now we have a few leads, a few new contacts, and some new opportunities to pursue. We even have a new services page to try to reach out to this market (we’re still tweaking it!). The projects and budgets may not be as big, but it’s an interesting market that not many elearning companies seem to be targeting.

Of course, maybe the other elearning companies know something that we don’t. We’re just hoping it’s the other way around.

Improving eLearning Usability

elearning usability testingWhat makes people want to use your elearning? How do you remove barriers to learning and make your programs accessible?

I recently examined these and other questions in an article on elearning usability published by trainingindustry.com. It’s available online at http://www.trainingindustry.com/learning-technologies/articles/improving-e-learning-usability.aspx.

It isn’t hard (or expensive) to make your elearning easy to use and engaging, but it is something that needs to be planned. Good elearning should consider the quality of the learning, the quality of teaching, the quality of the learning environment and the quality of interaction. If you create elearning that’s strong in all of those areas and is relevant, learners will get more out of it. Your learner’s time is valuable and should be spent learning the subject matter, not your system.

Testing for usability issues in elearning should also be on every learning professional’s radar. This is not something you and your team can do yourselves; you’re too close to the project, as are your other key stakeholders. Get testers who are representative of the audience, plan your testing, and make sure you observe rather than coach. For professional help with elearning usability testing, take a look at eLearningQA.com.