There has been an undoubtable leveling of the playing field in eLearning over the last 10-years, with eLearning tools and delivery platforms becoming more widely accessible in terms of cost and choice. This trend has been matched by an equally impressive growth in the number of teachers dipping their toes into course and content development – a trend that is particularly evident in the language field. So what’s a budding course developer’s best option for sharing his or her creations with the world and building an online business?
The obvious answer is to use an LMS (Learning Management System). But which one? Until a few years ago, the most likely answer would have started with the letter “M” and rhymed with doodle (fill in the blanks yourself). If you were adventurous or looking for something a bit more client-friendly, you might have looked into some of the more sophisticated and polished commercial solutions (of which elearningindustry.com currently lists 571).
Litmos, eFront and Articulate Online are all LMS platforms that my company has used at one time or another. But all of these fell short in terms of meeting our particular needs (which are admittedly a bit more complex than just delivering and measuring progress on a few fixed courses). However, it wasn’t just their capabilities that left something to be desired, the main issue was that they were indeed an LMS. And by that I mean they looked, felt and worked like an LMS, which is not exactly the most user-friendly or positive environment for learning. They are particularly alien if your users’ first port of call is a normal website, which generally work better for SEO, marketing and sales than an LMS.
More recently we’ve seen the rise (and fall?) of MOOCs and commercial platforms such as Udemy, Lynda and an army of clones. For the independent course developer, these newer platforms are certainly more accessible in terms of cost and technical barriers, but they usually come with some onerous commercial terms and restrictions, along with some pretty underwhelming feature sets in terms of quizzes, reporting and communicating with your learners.
Thankfully there is an alternative that offers both the perceived affordability of open source LMS such as Moodle, and the more user-friendly accessibility of the Udemy-style platforms. And best of all you’re already likely to be familiar with this platform: WordPress. Indeed, the software running the site you’re reading this blog post on runs on WordPress, as do around 25% of all websites. And it’s this pervasiveness of use that makes WordPress such as compelling option.
For one thing, WordPress’ popularity, and championing of the open source ethos, means there is a massive and active support base, which the usually technically challenged teacher will often need to call on regardless of which LMS option we pursue. In most cases the entry level support needed to get a WordPress site up and running can be freely obtained from the many WordPress support forums and blogs that preliterate the web. If you need hands on support, that’s available more readily and at more economical rates than commercial or more traditional LMS options. And these days, you can usually find competent support options in your own language and area.
The underlying philosophy the helped establish WordPress as the undisputed king of website software has also given rise to huge developer community. And these developers have created a huge number of plugins you can use to extend the functionality of WordPress. Want to change the look and feel of your site? Choose from 1,000’s of free and paid themes. Want to add ecommerce functionality? There’s over 100 plugins to choose from (and the number one option is free, as are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th). Want to set up an online booking system or classroom timetable? There’s a plugin for that. The list of possibilities is endless: chat, social networking, customized navigation, forums, SEO, security, mobile and on.
Within these options are some pretty capable quizzing and content organization tools which could reasonably be wrangled into a basic LMS. But there’s no real need to do that these days as there is also a decent range of mature (and not so mature) full-blown LMS plugins, including a few very decent options that are completely free. And if you can muster up $100, you can get your hands on the top three choices: Sensei, Learn Dash and WP Courseware.
But… and there’s always a “but” as I’ve found out after 15 years of diving into an shiny new LMS only to find out 100 hours later that it’s close, but certainly no cigar… which plugin to choose and which one is going to work best for my particular needs? After all, one thing in common with virtually any LMS option is you’re going to be committed to that choice for many years to come due to the proprietary nature of the plugin’s course building and quizzing functionality and the significant amount of time it will take, not to set up the LMS, but to build out your content and courses.
This is what I’ll be looking at in my upcoming Innovate ELT conference talk on 6th May in sunny Barcelona. I’ll also be digging deeper into the challenges and feature sets of the various WordPress LMS plugins on my new scratch pad/blog: www.WP-LMS.com. You’re welcome to stop by and say hi and very soon you’ll be able to get a demo account to test out some of the plugins I’ll look at in my talk.