Courseware is software that allows you to build training courses. Once used predominantly by formal educational institutions and some larger corporations, courseware has exploded for use across all business. As courseware developed, Learning Management System (LMS) software extended the functionality by adding student management and tracking features like grade books and reporting. Today the terms are frequently treated the same since many of the courseware platforms do include a variety of reporting features.
Courseware was originally created for use on local computers. Dictionary.com still defines it as “ software It was used on local computers in schools and sometimes in corporations. As computers became more available in schools and companies, full systems for the creation and delivery of CBT (Computer Based Training) programs evolved. What initially required computer programmers to build, became application-like allowing instructors without programming skills to build classes to be delivered via software.
Enterprise and educational level Learning Management System (LMS) software, is still available from a variety of vendors. Recently courseware plugins have developed for content management systems like WordPress and several fully hosted, easy to use platforms entered the online space allowing small business owners and solopreneurs easy access to course creation and delivery.
Online Training via the Internet
With the explosion of the Internet, the widespread availability of high speed access to the Internet, and improved technologies for delivering video and audio online, computer based training moved from local computers to the web.
Early Learning Management Systems (LMS) like the Open Source, free Moodle and commercially available Blackboard were initially designed with schools in mind. Their course delivery options, gradebooks, and management mimicked live educational institutions in an online format. As courseware developed for use in business, regimented grading systems and other school-like formats were often dropped and the focus was placed solely on information delivery and knowledge transfer.
Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline also remain popular as course creation tools. These are often used to create courses that are then delivered through management platforms like Moodle. Though with the growth of content management systems, like WordPress, and easy to use, SaaS (Software as a Service) hosted solutions like Teachable, their complexity and price tags above $1000 may deter many.
WordPress Courseware Plugins
For those using Content Management Systems, such as WordPress, plugins for Learning Management evolved allowing you to create, deliver, and manage online courses from within your website installation. For the purpose of this website and these programs, I will initially focus on WordPress as a content delivery system and the LMS plugins that have been created for WordPress.
Early options for WordPress course creation included LearnDash, Sensei, and WP Courseware. These, premium plugins, are still some of the most popular and powerful available. Over the past 15 months, they have been joined by Zippy Courses and two freemium options LearnPress and Namaste. At this writing, LearnPress is no longer in the WordPress repository, so its future is unknown. WPMUDev has also released a courseware plugin, CoursePress Pro, which will be reviewed, here, in the near future.
3rd Party Hosted Courseware Solutions
For those who do not want to incorporate classes into their website, but still want a simpler solution than the earlier Learning Management Systems offer, many third party, fully hosted, SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions have arisen allowing a business person to easily create and deliver courses.
For those looking for a 3rd party system that is also part of a marketplace, Udemy is available. Its benefit is that your courses may be discovered by the more than 9 million people already viewing their website. The caveat to Udemy is that their use and marketing guidelines are very specific, and they must manually approve all courses before they are released to the marketplace.
Deciding between a WordPress Plugin and 3rd Party Platform
For small business owners and solopreneurs looking to grow their businesses, selecting a plugin that works with their content management system, for example using a WordPress plugin if you’re using WordPress for your website, or using a 3rd party, fully hosted solution like Teachable or Teachery is probably a better fit than the larger, more complex, and more expensive solutions used in the past by larger corporations. Both options have pros and cons associated with them.
Pros and Cons of Using a Plugin in Your Environment
The biggest advantage of building your own platform using plugins, in your own environment is control of the software. When adding a plugin to your WordPress installation, you pick the plugin, how it is configured, payment options, and everything about how the course will be created and delivered, within the confines of whatever plugin you choose. When using someone else’s platform, you must work within the rules of that platform and you have no guarantee that it will be there in the future.
There is also an advantage to your own environment keeping your customers engaged with you. When customers are on your site, interacting in your installation, they are truly yours. You have access to their contact information and are able to easily reach out to them for future connections. If you are using someone else’s platform and haven’t collected the contact information for yourself, you could lose everything if the platform rules change or the platform becomes unavailable.
The biggest disadvantage to building your own platform is that it must be managed. It is a commitment to either another piece of your current website, or a new website to support the platform. Additional time and money may be needed to manage the platform including improved web hosting.
Pros and Cons of Using a 3rd Party Platform
The biggest advantage of a third party platform is that you don’t have to configure, maintain, or be responsible for the platform. In some cases, this is preferred because of time or budget crunches. At other times, a web host may limit your choice of plugins and a 3rd party platform is the only option unless or until you move to a different web host. When using a fully-hosted and pre-configured platform, you can quickly create an account and begin building your course.
The disadvantage of a 3rd party platform is the lack of control. This may range from payment options, topic limitations, and delivery limitations, to platform availability. The platform terms of service may even limit your access to student contact information.
Overviews of Individual Course Creation and Delivery Solutions
In the beginning of 2016, I’ll be providing overviews of course creation and delivery solutions with highlights listed below and links to longer, more in-depth articles on the courseware.
LearnDash WordPress Plugin
LearnDash is a premium WordPress plugin that provides a complete Learning Management System. At this writing (January 2016), it is the most powerful of the courseware options with the ability to create and sell courses without other plugins or extensions. Using extensions, the plugin can be extended to include multiple instructors, front-end course development and integrations with plugins like bbPress, BuddyPress, and Paid Memberships Pro allowing you to extend the community aspects of this platform. Read more…
LifterLMS WordPress Plugin
LifterLMS is a Freemium Learning Management System plugin for WordPress. You only pay for additional modules like the Stripe payment gateway, MailChimp integration, or for the Pro package which includes support and an additional graphics package. By including almost all features and functionalities as part of the plugin instead of requiring on integrations with other plugins, LifterLMS makes installing and creating courses the easiest to get started. Read more…
Sensei WordPress Plugin
Brought to you by the folks who make WooCommerce, Sensei is a premium WordPress Learning Management System plugin. It combines course creation, reporting and student management features along with simple drag and drop arrangement of lessons for a powerful, yet easy to use courseware platform. Sensei is integrated with WooCommerce, the most popular shopping cart for WordPress, is showing as the second most popular ecommerce site on the web by BuiltWith as of this writing. This integration allows WooCommerce to manage sales and access to the courses. Extensions are available for additional functionality including integration with BuddyPress, the ability for students to share their grades through social media, and the ability to provide a peek into enrollment numbers on the signup page.
WP Courseware WordPress Plugin
WP Courseware is a premium courseware creation and management plugin. It focuses solely on the creation of online courses with the goal of being the easiest to install and create a course. Modules, lessons, and quizzes can be easily reordered using drag-and-drop functionality. If offering free courses, and only requiring a single instructor, this be the easiest way to get started adding online courses to your WordPress installation. Managing access and payments is always done through outside membership or shopping cart plugins which does require extra configuration.
Coming Soon – More WordPress courseware solutions, and some hosted for you, SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions.