Learndash & WordPress LMS

As a Thinkific Expert and avid WordPress developer, I get this question a lot. Before diving in, I want to potentially save you a read and state the answer to this question is: It depends on your business needs and there is no one answer that will fit everyone.

To get my general recommendation out of the way early, I am a proponent of using Thinkific to host your content but use WordPress as your main site and checkout flow. You get the best of both worlds, a rock solid course player (Thinkific) but the flexibility of design and additional features (WordPress)

Now, I’m assuming you have basic familiarity with WordPress and Thinkific. You don’t need to be a developer, but at the very least you have checked out their websites and looked at a few WordPress LMS’s like Learndash or LifterLMS. In this article, I won’t compare WordPress LMS’s directly (As they are broadly similar) but the article is applicable to broadly all of them.

I’m just starting out, what’s the high level summary?

If any of the following apply:

  • You have little to no online presence i.e. No website
  • This is your first online course
  • You plan a reasonably basic course set up,

Then use Thinkific. Why? It’s the fastest possible why to get up and running, and they have a free plan. There is nothing better than a free way to test your course and build your MVP.

So, why would I use WordPress?

  • If you need a very particular design or user flow. For example, you want a very particular look and feel to your website, or need users to interact with your content in a very particular way, then WordPress is a better bet. WordPress is infinitely more extensible than Thinkific when it comes to design and layout. That said, Thinkific has great themes off the shelf and uses the same design tools as Shopify, so before making a jump it’s worth considering a custom theme on Thinkfic.
  • If you have very particular membership packages, subscriptions or payment options. For example, let’s assume you need to sell bundles of courses put only accept payment by wire transfer or Bitcoin, then WooCommerce with WordPress is the best route forward as you can use custom payment gateways.
  • If you intend to sell solely to B2B markets, and the WooNinja B2B dashboard does not fit your needs, then WordPress may be a better option for user management. For example, Thinkific has limited roles but with WordPress, you could easily have managers, team leads and more who can access and support your students.
  • If you have an existing WordPress site with features that are essential to your course. For example, you have a custom plugin or membership site where a significant portion of your user interaction takes place and you want users to remain on WordPress (Note, this is a weaker reason not to use Thinkific as you could simply use Thinkific as the course player and connect your WordPress users to Thinkific with any one of my plugins)
  • You need functionality that is easier, cheaper, or only possible, to achieve in WordPress. A good example here is filtering. Thinkific has very poor course searching and filtering ability. However, WordPress can achieve this very easily both out of the box and by using plugins like FacetWP or SearchWP.

What are the hidden challenges of using WordPress?

  • You will absolutely need a competent WordPress developer. Not just for the build phase, but on an ongoing basis. I’d go as far to say they should be on a retainer as you’ll need them to be able to act quickly when things go wrong (And they will eventually as WordPress is amazing but it needs constant maintain and review). By contrast, Thinkific maintains their system for you and you never need to worry about it.
  • All the design work is on you. You will not only need to pick a theme, you’ll likely need to customise and tweak it to make it work with both WordPress and your LMS, but also any additional plugins you using. This is time consuming and will need tweaking in the long term. By contrast, Thinkific has off the shelf themes that they maintain (and you can customise)
  • You will need very good hosting, especially if you plan to have more than a handful of students on your site at a time. For larger schools, you will need dedicated servers and databases, with good bandwidth and support. Off the shelf hosting won’t cut it, you’ll need top tier. By contrast, Thinkific has no cap on users, they scale with you without cost.
  • You will need a content delivery network (CDN) to deliver your video and multimedia. This is why Netflix and others are so quick to load, they place videos near your home on servers farms so they stream smoother. You need to do the same, especially if you have users around the world. High Definition, and 4K, videos require a lot of bandwidth and this can rapidly become costly. By contrast, Thinkific does this for you and there is no cap on views, downloads or video size.
  • Security, and keeping your student data secure, is 100% on you. WordPress is rock solid at the core but depending on what plugins you use, and how you maintain them, you may have cracks in your online armour. This is before you consider more technical elements like firewalls and DDoS protection. In short, you’ll not only need a developer, you’ll need one that can protect your system and scale it as you grow. By contrast, Thinkific does this for you, at no cost.

So, I shouldn’t use WordPress at all?

No, you just need to be aware that you are entering a world of higher costs and more complexity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there are upsides to this and sometimes, based on project requirements, it may be the only solution.

In summary, when you choose WordPress, instead of logging into a dashboard that ‘just works’ on Thinkific, you’re creating your own platform that you need to build and then maintain in the long term. This is generally only possible for mid to large organisations that have the resources, and revenue, to maintain it.

Therefore, I generally only recommend WordPress installs if:

  • You, or your team (Or someone you can hire), have a strong background in WordPress development and are prepared to keeping it running.
  • You (or the team you hire) have a strong grasp of building a website at scale to cater for multiple users. This is a rare skill, even in developer circles. There is a significant difference, both technical and cost, between running a site for 20, 200 and 2000 people.
  • The cost of building and maintaining a WordPress installation is less than the cost of a workaround and/or development on a Thinkific site.

I want to move from Thinkific to Learndash (or a similar WordPress LMS), is this recommend?

Again, it depends. Provided you have considered all the above and can point to solid reasons as to why you need WordPress to take over all the functionality of Thinkific, then it may be a good move for you.

I highly recommend speaking with Thinkific, or myself, prior to moving as it’s a significant exercise. The timeline to do this move is generally measured in weeks or months.

Are they are any hybrid models?

Circling back to my opening recommendation, you can tightly couple WordPress and Thinkific to effectively achieve the best of both worlds.

  • WordPress can operate as your main website, and can even undertake flows like sign up, checkout, membership forums etc. The checkout in WooCommerce is a huge reason to use WordPress, you can sell your courses, along with digital and physical goods, as Thinkific has no cart system.
  • Thinkific acts as an LMS, taking data from WordPress and providing the course content and consumption to the end user.

Most of my clients do this as it’s the greatest ‘bang for buck’ set up.