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How to Configure Your Online Course and Overcome Obstacles Along the Way

As the second post in a three-part series, Pantheon Hero Roy Sivan walks you through the considerations and common obstacles you'll encounter in setting up and selling your online course using WordPress and a Learning Management System (LMS). 

Image by Giovanni Gagliardi via Unsplash

In my previous post, I recommended going with WordPress over using SaaS solutions for managing your online courses. I went over the main reasons this is the preferred choice, however, without technical knowledge or the proper budget to hire someone for help, the learning curve for WordPress can certainly be difficult. SaaS solutions like Teachable do offer a more hands-on experience and they’re potentially simpler (to you) — both to get your course online and for continued course management.

Do not let me discourage you from using WordPress! It is still the better option. After all, every obstacle has a solution. All of these obstacles can be solved if you have the appropriate time, motivation, or budget.

In this post, you’ll learn about all of the considerations — both straightforward and complicated — involved in first setting up a WordPress course with a proper learning management system (LMS), then selling said course.

The Easy Parts

WordPress

WordPress, by default, is a pretty simple CMS with an intuitive user interface. I have heard complaints from course instructors, but often the root cause of these complaints was due to using a mix of plugins, themes, etc. — all which made the admin screens overwhelming.

Installing WordPress can be done manually, but at this point I’d recommend a host like Pantheon to host your WordPress site for you, so you are not worrying about installation. Not only do modern hosts install WordPress for you, but some offer updates built into the existing workflow. No more downloading the latest WordPress version, updating code locally, and FTP’ing to update! 

Many non-WordPress-focused hosts also offer one-click installs so installing WordPress is easy  (note, that doesn’t mean updating it is!). In these cases, I recommend using a service like Pantheon’s new Autopilot or ManageWP.

WordPress also has a great support system, no matter how you want support. How to find support? Well, there are many options, from online forums and Googleable answers to using social media to find niche groups building and working on the same things you are. Have a question about a particular setup? Ask the question virtually anywhere WordPress developers hang out online, and you should be able to get useful information. If you still can’t find useful information, ask me on Twitter or reach out in the Pantheon Community

LearnDash

Once you have WordPress installed with base plugins, it is time to add learning management system (LMS) capabilities. There are a few plugins that handle course creation and course management, but I always recommend the LearnDash LMS plugin to all my clients. LearnDash is easy to use and offers the features you need to get your course online, without too many frills that will make it complicated or hard to understand. 

Just like WordPress, LearnDash has a wide support community wherever you are looking for help. The Learndash LMS Tips & Tricks Facebook group has grown to be a great support community where I go when I need some more information about how the plugin works or how people have extended it. 

Extending Functionality

WordPress is a great place to start any course website for its ease of learning and use. It is also a great platform when you need to add new functionality. Just like the LearnDash LMS plugin for WordPress that extends its default functionality, there are other plugins that add extra functionality to LearnDash. Sites like HonorsWP offer plugins that extend the base functionality to improve the experience for teachers creating courses and the students learning from them.

The Hard Parts

The hard parts of WordPress and this setup won’t be experienced right away. Once you get your course up and running with decent hosting, you should be good to start. Once you get going, there are some key elements of concern that come up with a successful WordPress site, especially one that has extra features like an LMS.

Site Performance

Site performance may be something you need improvement on right away; you’ll see it as soon as you are ready to get your site live. What are the tell-tale signs of bad site performance? Slow website, bad grades on webpagetest.org, and analytics of users on your site might not look great (e.g. consisting of high bounce rates, low conversion rates).

While the server setup and hosting does play a significant role in site performance, we’ve often seen  that performance is more affected by what is activated on the WordPress site and how those features load their assets. Some plugins load scripts on every page, which will cause slower load times. Some of the worst culprits are plugins that modify queries, so almost every database call is being slowed down while it processes through whatever filter the plugin has added. Coding for performance isn’t always high on plugin or theme developers’ minds as they try and get their product out. 

If you are hosted on Pantheon, make sure to check the performance docs to read about how you can improve your site’s performance.

Bandwidth & Concurrents

The ability to scale your website up as more traffic comes is tied closely to performance. If you want to set up your course to require students to take the class or lesson at the same time of day, you will have to be mindful of concurrent users. Concurrent users, the amount of users simultaneously using your website, significantly affects the site's ability to perform as you expect it to. 

Take video content for example. A course with a video and a single student watching said video is a lot less taxing on the server than hundreds of students watching at the same time. Have a bunch of course material that needs to load? Filling up the database and file system will also have a negative impact, and this will substantially slow down (or break) the experience for students.

Don’t Forget

While putting a course online seems simple, selling a course means you are now running an e-commerce site. If you search for any of the pain points mentioned above within the context of WooCommerce, you will find many articles and tutorials. E-Commerce has always brought scaling pain points with WordPress. Hosting companies have created teams and services specifically focused on helping e-commerce sites powered by WordPress. A LearnDash site with some customization for selling, or extra features is not unlike a WooCommerce site with added plugins.

The Solutions

As mentioned, WordPress has a large support community and the content to help resolve issues can be found almost anywhere. While a specific bug or reason for an issue may come up that will require some hired help, you may be able to narrow down the cause for the bug online, potentially in the WordPress.org support forum.

Better Support

Support and Hosting often go hand in hand, but a host’s responsibility does not usually extend to helping you with your WordPress website. That is the application running on the server, and hosts are more concerned about the servers running as best as possible. Support and maintenance teams are a good way to get ongoing support for your WordPress website. Choosing to go this route leaves you more time to continue improving or creating courses.

While there are many options available now for WordPress maintenance and support, be sure to ask about others’ experience using the WordPress setup you have. HonorsWP offers support and maintenance for LMS websites built on WordPress. There are more broad providers of these services like WPBuffs, which should also be able to help.

The support and maintenance team you choose may suggest moving hosts to improve performance or other functionality issues you may be experiencing.

Better Host

Moving to a better host — one focused more on performance is a big, but often necessary step. I have moved a number of course websites from their existing host to new hosts with instant results. While the migrations can be tedious, the instant and ongoing improvement makes it worth it. There are a number of hosts I will migrate clients to, leaning toward Pantheon or WPEngine for clients with more complex setups. Pantheon is the perfect solution if custom code development is in scope and I want the best environment management. 

Better Setup

Migrating to a new host is a big step but, a larger step that is sometimes required is a full site rebuild. Rebuilds need to be carefully planned and thought out. A rebuild can include a new design, new purpose-built plugins to replace slower ones, or even an architecture change.

Headless WordPress is becoming popular since it solves many of the issues WordPress sites typically have. It is unsurprising that teachers are opting for headless learning management systems. LearnDash does not currently support headless directly, but it’s possible to custom build a headless LMS site. 

WordPress Is Worth The Effort

If you haven’t run away from the idea of WordPress yet, don’t! It is still the best option for you and your course in the long run. The issues mentioned may not actually be issues for you. Hosts, server technology, and WordPress support offerings have come a long way in the past five years and are still improving. What may be a hard problem today could easily be solved tomorrow. WordPress still gives you the full control and ownership of your data that a SaaS platform will not give you.



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Topics Ecommerce, Education, WordPress, WordPress Hosting

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