WordPress LMS Showdown: Sensei vs. LearnDash
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 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.
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.
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.
I have used both Sensei and LearnDash fairly extensively on my LMS sites and ultimately ended up ditching Sensei altogether. To be honest, I am very disappointed at Sensei as a whole because it is just a barebones system and for the cost, I felt there were many basic features lacking. The only thing Sensei wins in is the front end user interface, which I hope LearnDash really addresses with more clean CSS coding in the near future. LearnDash is in another league though. Like you mentioned, the support is insane. It isn’t surprising to get an email from the founder within 24 hours of posting an inquiry and he actually takes the time to help whether through email, forums, etc. LearnDash pushes out updates about every 2 months and really takes it’s users feedback and ideas to heart. The system is very intuitive and very powerful which may be intimidating to some people at first but once you understand the architecture and how one thing affects another, you really learn to appreciate LearnDash.
This is a totally unbiased reply to this article. I don’t get endorsed or paid by LearnDash or Sensei (WooCommerce) and this is just one users honest input.
Great comparison post Ryan. I’ve used and looked under the hood of both Sensei and Learndash. In my view Learndash is a superior product between the two. I’m also really impressed with the level of support and continuos improvement coming from Justin and the team at Learndash. It’s obvious how much they listen to their customers and evolve the product based on their feedback.
We’ve recently released a new WordPress LMS plugin called lifterLMS http://lifterlms.com Our early adopter community is currently working with it and we’re building out new features based on what the community is asking for.
WooSensei and Learndash are good options. And I’m grateful for their leadership in the space. These are exciting times in the WordPress LMS community as demand for WordPress powered learning management systems continue to boom.
Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. I look forward to seeing where you land with lifterLMS in the new year when you launch; I sat in on the Q&A session you hosted, and while it wasn’t ready at the time for us to pursue using it, there were definitely some things I liked.
Thanks for the article. I’ve just realized that a LMS is the solution we need at the church I serve. I was looking at LearnDash and it sounds like a good option. Since I’m new to this, I’m not even real sure what features we really need. Plan on using the LMS for leadership training.
I appreciate your in depth review and I’m excited to see how online learning will advanced within the WordPress space.
We hope to improve Sensei on all fronts as it grows within the WordPress ecosystem.
Thanks Dwain, I spoke to Dan a few months ago and it sounds like you guys are making good progress with Sensei!
I am appreciative for this in-depth review as I am embarking on building a video course membership – I was looking into using Joomla which I thought might be better for scaling, but I’d prefer to use WordPress as I like it much better as a CMS. I am still not sure which option I will select but thanks for bringing LearnDash to my attention! I am pressing on with researching solutions.
I’ve never used either of these products, but have been attempting to use CoursePress Pro, and for the money it costs, the “staff” of WPMU Dev is constantly doing work arounds, because the plugin is either faulty, or just yesterday it became unusable because of the WordPress 4.3 upgrade.
Are there issues like this with LearnDash?
Thanks for this, we’re integrated with LearnDash and looking to integrate with Sensei as well because it comes up more and more often.
Do you have an updated review or opinion on the 2 platforms since this was written a little over a year ago?
I think we’ll still integrate to both but just curious if opinion has changed or remains the same?
Good to hear from you! We’ve used Memberium on a few client sites.
An updated article is in our queue and we know it’s late. A lot has definitely changed since this one was written, and Sensei has certainly improved. Right now we’re just not using Sensei in enough projects to comment on differences and provide a fair comparison. We’ll try to get a fresh take on the article in about 2 months or so.
Gotcha, thanks man!
(we’ll let you know too if we get any feedback about Sensei too, gotta say we love LearnDash though, I use it on my own membership site and many of our clients do too)
thanks for that great piece.
We are just starting out with an LMS. Since we rely on Woocommerce as a shop and membership solution, it seems logical for us to go with Sensei though we have purchased LearnDash already. So we have a bold idea. What about to install both in the same WP installation and then testing them out in the field? Would you expect any conflicts by taking this path?
This is a very old article now and we really haven’t touched Sensei for about 3 years. At the time we had helped 2 clients, I believe, move from Sensei to LearnDash, and during some of the transition both were active. There were some issues. I don’t remember what at this point, but I wouldn’t recommend you use both at all.
We have WooCommerce and membership solutions on probably at least half of the LeanDash sites we build. Those shouldn’t be a factor in choosing to use LearnDash vs. Sensei.
Thanks a bunch for your input, Ryan.
So we will start out with LearnDash as our LMS and expect to have fun with it.
Btw, we have also installed the Ucanny LearnDash Toolkit. Haven’t looked into it very much so far but it seems to be kickass too. Thanks for your great work. See you down the road. Thrive on.
Hi, thank you very much for that great article. I’m new to LMS an have the following question:
I need a system where people can book online courses and receive automatically emails every e.g. week or so.
Does one of two LMS offer such a functionality?
Thanks for help
I’m afraid that no LMS plugin will give you that functionality natively, especially the email piece. For what you described we would typically use LearnDash with WP Fusion and Active Campaign, setting a tag on registration/purchase and then have emails scheduled based on course enrolment. It will work well and be reliably, whereas emails from inside WordPress are more of a risk.
Hi, thank you for your reply. What I meant was, if any LMS offers the possibility to schedule sections of a course, so that the customer receive some kind of “reminder” that the next section of a course will start in xxx- days.
For example: I’m a coach and I would like to offer a course divided in different sections. To continue with the course the client has to learn and use the knowledge in section one for a week or so. After that week, he can continue with section two and so on.
Got it. LearnDash has drip dates for lessons; that’s what you’re looking for. When set, the date will also be listed in table that lists lessons in a course so that users know when it will be released. As for an email communication, you can use the free Notifications that LearnDash provide; if you’re a LearnDash customer, have a look at https://support.learndash.com/articles/notifications/ for specific instructions. With the earlier WP Fusion approach I mentioned, you could also have an automation that sends an email on the calendar date when that lesson is available to enrolled users.