best online course software

The Best Online Course Software for Entrepreneurs

In this post, we’ll highlight our very favorite pieces of software, platforms, and plugins available for creating online courses.

The tools and software for creating online courses has come an incredibly long way in a real short time.

People making money online from teaching online courses isn’t new, but for a long time, it was quite messy – from both the process for creating courses, and on the end of students taking courses.

For courses to really be effective, they need follow an intentional structure. Students progress through a series of modules and lessons in a specific order, building on previous things they’ve learned. Lessons are often spread out over a period of time. Students can take periodic quizzes to make sure they’re actually learning and retaining info, and can communicate back & forth with the teacher.

While offline courses were usually set up that way, for many years, the structure of online courses was kind of a mess.

Companies tried to solve this problem with things like membership plugins. Courses were basically blogs, but with membership plugins just restricting access to certain pages.

Over the last few years, companies have taken queues from offline courses, and built some incredible tools for creating (and taking) online courses. They typically allow courses to easily be broken up into sections/modules, and lessons within each section – all which people complete in a specific order.

They also feature things like quizzes, and have the ability for students to login and pickup the course from where they left off. You can award badges as users complete sections, give users the ability to interact with the course creator, and much more. The process for building courses on the back-end also became much easier as well.

 


Selling courses on marketplaces vs on your own website

While there are marketplaces like Udemy and Skillshare that let you sell courses, they ultimately don’t give you much control over your courses. You don’t own any information on people who purchase your course, and have no way to communicate with them (and sell them other courses in the future). You are hoping they rank your courses highly, and get you sales.

When you sell courses on your own website, you are able to actually build a brand (compared to helping other companies build theirs). You can build your own email list, and create your own community.

 


Options for creating your own online course website

When looking to create an online course website, people typically try to decide between 2 options:

1. Using a WordPress a LMS (Learning Management System) plugin or theme

This is a good option for people who want a low-cost website, and are more technical. If you want the flexibility to fully customize your site, and potentially change to do different themes (or even a different LMS plugin) in the future, using WordPress is generally a great option.

The downsides are that you’ll have to deal with the typical headaches that come along with WordPress (such as doing something like updating a 3rd party plugin, and seeing that your site is now broken). You’ll need to handle your own theme & plugin updates, handle your own security (including purchasing an SSL certificate and making sure your payment process is PCI compliant), and back up your site each day. You can certainly pay someone to handle these things for you, but would want to take that into account when comparing WordPress to other options.

There’s also the fact that WordPress is primarily built as a blogging platform, so creating online courses with it can be a little funky at times. You create blog posts that are repurposed as course lessons. This can take a little time to get used to – especially if you’re not familiar with WordPress – but does have some advantages, such as using WordPress plugins to add functionality to lessons (ie. custom audio and video players).

2. Using a hosted online course solution

This is the best option for people who don’t mind spending some money each month to cut out a lot of the time and steps involved in running your own website. It’s perfect for people who want to spend their time creating and selling their courses, and not potentially dealing with a finicky website.

Going this route, you don’t have to worry about any technical aspects of websites. You don’t have to know any coding or how to style a website. You don’t have to deal with any security issues, don’t have to worry about backing your site up every day, and if you need help with something, the software company you’re using should provide support.

The best solutions for both of these options.

Below, we will feature our picks for the best options for your online course website, but going the fully-hosted option, or hosting a site yourself (or with a hosting provider) using WordPress.

Our focus here is on options that are great on both the backend (where you’ll create your courses) and on the frontend (the experience your students will have – which will ensure they’re happy, see results from your course, and become repeat customers of yours).

There are a good amount of online course software options out there that look good on the front-end, but are pretty brutal to use on the back-end (and vice versa). Focusing on tools that are a complete package helped quickly narrow down the list.

Our favorite hosted online course platform

Teachable

Teachable bills itself as ‘The world’s most simple and powerful eLearning platform”, and it lives up to that claim.

Teachable is a fully-hosted online course platform that includes everything from an awesome-looking website, an easy-to-use backend to create your courses, a boatload of wonderful features, extensive documentation, and a really helpful customer support team.

A course created with Teachable

The Teachable Course Front-End

Teachable gives you a website that, in addition to having an absolutely beautiful course page layout, includes a blog, and various other pages. While some people prefer to still use a platform like WordPress for their homepage and other pages, and just include a link to their Teachable site for courses, your Teachable website can function as your entire website.

teachable online course website

Teachable’s courses are presented in a clean and easy-to-navigate format. The course’s sections and lessons (essentially a table of contents) is on the left. Users can scroll through it and jump to specific lessons, and there is a progress bar at the top showing the user the percentage of the course they’ve completed.

The actual course content is displayed on the right in a wide container, and there is a button at the top of the page to continue on to the next lesson.

Courses are fully responsive, so the size of everything (including the text, images, and videos) adjust based on the size of the browser.

We love Teachable’s front-end layout (especially with the course table of contents being on the left), and it’s surprising how few online course platforms use a similar layout. The full-screen course minimizes distractions, and and keeps users focused (where as most WordPress LMS options load the course within websites (so you still have things like the header and navigation menu showing).

Overall, the front-end is real easy for students to use, and is designed in a way that’s inviting, and encourages people to actually complete courses.

The Teachable Course Back-End

Teachable’s backend is intuitive to use, and makes the process of putting together your online course pretty damn enjoyable.

You create your course’s sections, and then add lessons (which they refer to as lectures) to each section.

Within each lesson/lecture, you can add either text sections or media sections (which include videos, audio, and attachments). Everything is drag-and-drop, so it’s easy to move things around to change the order of sections if needed.

One area where Teachable isn’t quite as flexible as WordPress is with your ability to customize courses. With WordPress, if you want to include audio, for example, there are a number of plugins you could use to change the look of the audio player. With Teachable, you are stuck with the default audio player. Inserting graphics into courses in Teachable is also a bit more time-intensive than WordPress.

For most users though (especially for courses focused on text and video), Teachable includes virtually everything you will ever need.

Other Features

Teachable lets you drip content to students, create coupon codes, manage your own affiliate program, and handles all your payment processing.

When using a WordPress online course theme or plugin, you have to set up all the payment processing details yourself. You typically use another service for payment processing (such as Stripe or WooCommerce), and you have to make sure you handle the additional website security that goes along with accepting payment. That includes purchasing an SSL certificate from your hosting provider (and installing it on your site). If you want to sell subscriptions, that often requires the purchase of an upgrade or another plugin. If you want to offer an affiliate program for your courses, that’s another plugin or upgrade.

Teachable handles the entire payment process for you. You can sell your courses for a one-time fee, sell a subscription, set up a payment plan, and offer individual or bundled courses.

You can reward others for sharing your course and track their results with Teachable’s built-in affiliate marketing functionality. Teachable even lets you accept international payments.

Teachable even includes customizable sales pages (another thing that typically requires an additional paid plugin in WordPress. You can use their conversion-optimized sales page template, or create your own custom landing pages.

One last awesome thing about Teachable is that is actually has the ability to let you create your own online course marketplace like Lynda.com or Udemy!

Pricing

Teachable’s main plans are either $39 or $99 a month. Both plans offer an incredible amount of features and functionality, but the main drawback of the $39 ‘Basic’ plan is that they take 5% of your sales, where with the $99 ‘Professional’ plan, the transaction fee is 2% when using their payment processing (or no transaction fee if you want to use a 3rd party like Stripe or Paypal).

Another key benefit of the Professional plan is that your website will be fully branded as your own, where the Basic plan includes Teachable branding.

You can try out teachable risk-free and start creating your courses for free to make sure you like their software before purchasing.

While using Teachable is certainly more expensive than using WordPress, the benefits of Teachable often outweigh the costs for most people. While it’s true that you can usually spend around $60 for a WordPress LMS theme, there are often various additional expenses required to add all the functionality that is included by default in Teachable.

While $39 or $99 might seem expensive, that cost can often be paid for if you just sell 1 or 2 courses a month.

Possibly the single best thing about Teachable is that due to it being easier to create courses in it compared to other options, it encourages you to actually finish the process of creating your course!

Overall, Teachable is a great option for entrepreneurs looking for an easy-to-use online course platform that lets you sell your own courses with a clean and professional website, and not have to spend time dealing with the hassles often found in other LMS platforms. It’s free to try out, so we recommend at least creating a quick account and playing around with the Teachable backend to see if it meets all your needs.

Check out Teachable


Other Hosted LMS Software Options

Other fully-hosted options to create online courses include Thinkific and Podia. While these options might suit your needs, none of the other options we tried where really anywhere close to the level of Teachable.

We also have more confidence in the long-term viability of Teachable (you don’t want to create a bunch of courses, only to have the software provider fold at some point).

While the other hosted online course software options all do certain things well, none of them are as complete of a package as Teachable, where the backend tools, front end-courses, website designs, customer support, and documentation are all outstanding.


WordPress Learning Management Themes and Plugins

The low cost and incredible flexibility of WordPress has made it a popular platform for creating online course websites.

There are basically 3 different ways to create and sell online courses in WordPress.

  1. Creating courses as Pages or Posts, and using a WordPress membership plugin to restrict access to those pages. This format was common for a while, before more feature-rich LMS plugins and themes started popping up. This works well for subscription membership sites where users pay a monthly or yearly fee, and get access to premium content on your site.
  2. Use a WordPress online course theme that has it’s own LMS platform built into it. There are a few themes out there where the theme developer created their own learning management system and integrated it into their theme. While the benefit of this is that the theme is generally guaranteed to work really well with the online course section, a drawback to this is if you wanted to switch to a different theme (or if the theme developer stopped maintaining the theme), you’d have to largely start over with a different theme.
  3. Use a WordPress LMS or online course plugin, or a theme built to work with a specific plugin. There are basically 2 ways to go about this:
    • Add a plugin to an existing theme. There are a number of WordPress LMS plugins that work fully on their own – meaning you can (in theory) use any WordPress theme you want, and just install the plugin and add online courses to your site. While this sounds good, it can often be a pain to deal with. The courses often have very little styling, and can conflict with the layout and styling of your theme.
    • Get a theme specifically designed to work with a specific WordPress course plugin. This is generally the route we recommend if you choose to use WordPress for your online courses. Themes are built with the course plugin in mind, and styling and page layouts are designed specifically for it.

Our Favorite WordPress Online Course Plugin

LearnPress

LearnPress is used by over 20,000 sites, and it’s clear why so many people use it. LearnPress stands out as our favorite WordPress LMS plugin for multiple reasons.

The first is that it’s super cheap. The plugin is technically free, but there are a variety of paid add-ons, including some that you likely will want to use (such as being able to accept any payments beyond using Paypal). The add-ons are generally around $40 each, but read on for a great way around this.

We also love the LearnPress front-end course layout. Similar to Teachable, it features a column on the left with the course curriculum on the left, and the course content on the right. You can even collapse the left sidebar so the course is full width.

learnpress wordpress online course plugin

This distraction-free layout helps keep students focused and engaged, and lets your videos and images be larger than them being within a standard blog layout.

LearnPress features a great ‘Preview’ option, where you can charge for the full course, but easily let people see certain lessons for free. This is a great way to get people to begin your course, and increase the likelihood of them purchasing it.

Creating courses in the LearnPress WordPress backend is pretty easy, due to a drag-and-drop course builder.

The LearnPress WordPress Backend
The LearnPress WordPress Backend

LearnPress offers a lot of good add-ons to let you extend the plugin’s functionality. These include integration with Paid Membership Pro (so you can sell subscriptions to your site so people can pay to access all courses), Stipe payment integration, content drip, certificates, and much more.

Great LearnPress Themes

One of the best things about Learnpress is that the company that makes it (Thimpress) also has their own themes for it. Using a theme built by the developers/company that knows their own LMS plugin better than anyone else is huge. Not only is the LearnPress integration really well done in their themes, the themes built by ThimPress are among the best WordPress LMS themes you’ll find anywhere.

Regarding that way mentioned above to get all their awesome add-ons for free? If you buy a theme built by Thimpress, they include all of their LearnPress add-ons for free (they sell for a total of over $500 on their own)!

Lastly, we’ve been impressed how often ThimPress releases updates for LearnPress. They frequently make significant improvements to it, and it has come a long way over the last year or so to make it really stand out among the other WordPress LMS plugins out there.

Check out their Course Builder theme and Education Theme.

Check out LearnPress


Our pick for Runner Up

LifterLMS

LifterLMS is a lesser-known plugin, but is really impressive.

LifterLMS stands out with it’s custom drag & drop course builder tool in the WordPress backend. It lets you set up your course structure in a layout that resembles an outline, which makes it easy to create and modify the structure of your course.

Like other WordPress online course plugins, courses are structured with modules and lessons.

LifterLMS is technically free, although that’s a little misleading, as you’ll need to purchase an add-on for $99 to actually accept payments. That said, it’s well worth the one-time $99 fee. You can also easily extend it with a variety of paid add-ons to add features like the ability to run your own affiliate program, connect it with your email provider, and much more.

One of the other great things about LifterLMS is that (to our knowledge) it is the only WordPress LMS plugin that includes it’s own built-in membership functionality. You can easily set up subscription options to let people access multiple courses, and simply check a box within the course to add it to the subscription.

It’s nice to have this functionality built into LifterLMS, rather than needing to use another plugin (and hoping it’s compatible).

Another good thing about LifterLMS is that it seems to integrate well with most WordPress themes. Unlike LearnPress, courses don’t display full screen (meaning that your site’s header, navigation, menu, and footer will still show), but otherwise, courses look nice and clean, and don’t require much custom styling.

One drawback is that the sidebar (which displays the course syllabus and progress bar) doesn’t quite work with every theme. LifterLMS offers a ‘Lifter Labs’ extension that tries to force the sidebar to work with different themes, but it was pretty hit-or-miss in our tests.

Also, while there are a handful of themes built to specifically include support for LifterLMS (including one built by LifterLMS), there are not nearly the amount of themes available as other WordPress LMS plugins. Assuming LifterLMS increases in popularity (as it should), hopefully more themes will be build for it in the near future.

Like LearnPress, LifterLMS is updated frequently, and they are clearly focused on continuing to build great features into it.

Check out LifterLMS


Other WordPress Options

Other LMS plugins for WordPress include LearnDash, WP Courseware, and Sensei (from WooThemes). While these are all feature-rich plugins, we encountered enough bugs and have read too many complaints across online forums on Facebook groups to fully recommend them at this time.


Wrapping Up

A good thing about all of the online course tools mentioned here is that you can try all of them for free to find the one that best meets your needs. As with most online business tools, it’s often best to look for the option that will help you grow your business (including converting more sales, and building your brand), and paid solutions are often well worth their cost, compared to the budget options.

It took me a long time to realize this. I spent years using the cheapest options for various business tools, and often struggled through using them (and didn’t get good results out of them). Using a service that has a monthly fee can sound off putting at times, but is usually worth it to avoid spending extra time (and getting stressed out) when using cheap/free options. As previously mentioned, keep in mind that often just one extra sale per month can pay for the cost of the software. The less headaches and hassles you have to deal with when using software and tools, the more time you can spend working on things that are actually important to your business.

We will continue to update this post if any reasons come up that make us stop recommending these options, or if new and even better options come to market.

Lastly, we invite you to sign up for our email newsletter to get valuable content delivered straight to your inbox.

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