If you decide to create your online course using WordPress, then you'll be faced with a range of different LMS and membership plugins to choose from.
So, is an LMS plugin or a membership plugin better for creating an online course?
LMS plugins are better for creating feature-rich and well structured online courses, complete with quizzes, progress tracking and certificates. Membership plugins are designed for restricting access to content, registering new members, taking payments and handling multiple membership levels or bundling of course packages.
Both kinds of plugins have their advantages and disadvantages, and there is some crossover in the features they both offer.
It really depends what kind of online course features you need, and you may even find that you need to use both.
In this article you'll learn:
- the difference between an LMS plugin and a membership plugin
- what LMS and membership plugins each do best at (and where they fall short)
- factors to consider when deciding which one to use for your own online courses
By the end of the guide you'll have a clear picture about which one suits your needs and some ideas of the best plugins to use.
Is A Membership Plugin Or An LMS Plugin Better For Creating An Online Course?
In the past, it didn't really make a huge difference whether you were making a basic online course or a membership site when it came to which WordPress plugin you'd use.
Nowadays there's a lot more choice and there are many specialized plugins to suit whatever kind of learning website you're looking to create.
LMS (learning management system) plugins are designed specifically for delivering structured online courses, enabling you to administer, deliver, and track progress through a series of lessons and modules.
Creating a great online course that's both easy to create for you and user-friendly for your students is now easier than ever.
However, it can sometimes actually feel like the opposite problem for you as the creator, because there's such an overwhelming amount of choice and it's hard to pick just one plugin!
Ultimately it will come down to exactly what kind of site you're trying to create for yourself and your end users.
Some people might even opt to use both a membership plugin and an LMS plugin!
- Learn more about the difference between Online Course Vs Membership Site here
- Confused about the difference between an LMS and a CMS? Read this
- See a list and review of the best WordPress LMS plugins
- Read the rundown of my top 5 favorite platforms for creating a membership site
Why Do You Need An Online Course Plugin Anyway?
First off, online courses don't necessarily need plugins because they don't have to be hosted on WordPress.
Many course creators choose to use 3rd party' hosted online course platforms like Teachable or Kajabi, which handle a lot of the tech setup for you, enabling you to focus on creating and selling your course instead.
For more info on choosing your online course platform, check out these articles:
Let's assume you already know you want to create your course on your own WordPress site though, and you're wondering why you need to use an online course plugin at all
Online Course Functionality
The main reason is that online courses usually have certain needs that other kinds of websites don't, and LMS plugins have been built to provide this kind of functionality.
For example, normally you'll want your online course to have a specific structure to it. Your lessons will comprise different modules in the overall course, and you want your students to work through the lessons in a certain order.
You might want to also add some graded or ungraded quizzes and assignments at the end of particular lessons or the course as a whole.
Some online courses even require members to finish and upload homework assignments to be graded, which requires a plugin with some pretty specific abilities.
Other things that might be important include giving your members a way to keep track of their course progress themselves, and for you to be able to monitor it as well. You might want to give students a certificate to print off after they've completed the course.
If you've got multiple courses, you might want a way to set up one course as a prerequisite before students are able to sign up for more advanced options.
These kinds of features enable you to create great engagement in your online courses, which can really add to the experience for your students
Protecting Content & Restricting Access
In comparison, membership site plugins are primarily just focused on protecting content and requiring paid users to have accounts and passwords to access your information.
Students take a looser approach to learning in membership sites and can click through different modules, lessons, and resources at will.
An LMS plugin is a lot more feature rich and contains a lot of the things you'll want to create an online course.
But on the other hand, if you're just making a basic course, a membership site plugin might tick the boxes of all the basic features you're looking for.
One way to look at it, is that a membership plugin is focused more on the bigger picture of protecting content on a website and selling access to it, while an LMS plugin is more concerned with the fine details of delivering the online course earning experience.
LMS + Membership Plugins Used Together
You may be thinking that you need the functionality for your online course and content restriction....and you'd be right! But it doesn't neccessarily mean you'll need an LMS and a membership plugin.
The whole matter is complicated by the fact that some LMS plugins contain features normally associated with Membership plugins.
For example, LearnDash (a leading LMS plugin) enables you to enroll students, take payments and restrict access - all features that a membership plugin can do.
However you may need to use both an LMS and a membership plugin if you want to be able to offer multiple courses or membership levels for example.
The Differences Between LMS Plugins And Membership Plugins – In More Detail
Are you still a bit confused as to what the differences are between an LMS plugin and a membership plugin? Don't worry, I know it can be a bit confusing, so let's outline both options in more detail.
What Are Membership Plugins Good For?
They protect content on your website
This is the original purpose that even the earliest membership plugins were designed for. They protect all kinds of content including text, images, videos, and audio files from being accessed by people who haven't paid for your course yet.
Members are required to log in to access all of your course content.
This includes protection for any downloadable files that the more tech-savvy people out there may try to go snooping through the directories of your website to find.
A membership plugin can make the registration process automatic. As soon as a new member signs up and payment has been confirmed, they'll receive an email with login details and instructions on how to access the course.
Normally the cancellation process is entirely automated by plugins as well.
Membership plugins can handle payments from Paypal, debit and credit cards, and other payment methods. While they can accept one-time payments, membership sites also often require an option for a subscription service.
Your membership site plugin will automatically bill your members each month after they've signed up until they decide to cancel.
The major membership plugins out there integrate quite well with other technology you use. Including things like email marketing services, as well as other plugins you might want to use to create forums, discussion boards, and gamification within your member site.
Allows for multiple levels of membership
You can have different tiers of members with access to different information depending on how much they pay each month. A membership plugin will also handle things like free trials, coupons, and upgrades without you having to manually do anything.
Can drip feed content
You might want your members to only gain access to the course at a specific rate, like one lesson per day or week.
This can be good to prevent your members from just quickly browsing through the course or skipping ahead. It gives them time to actually work through any assignments or instructions that you provide.
Every membership plugin is a little different, and some will have more or fewer features than the next one.
What Are LMS or Course Plugins Good For?
Overall course structure
LMS plugins are great for providing a structure for your content. They make your content easily broken down into modules and lessons that students need to work through in a specific order.
Quizzes and assignments
LMS offers features for graded and non-graded quizzes and assignments, which membership site plugins typically don't include.
Normally the cancellation process is entirely automated by plugins as well.
Track the progress of your students and allow them to keep track of their own progress through the course.
An LMS plugin typically provides a wide range of stats about the progress of your students.
Multiple courses in one site
It's easier to have multiple courses in one site using an LMS plugin compared to a membership plugin.
It's also possible to create prerequisites so students need to complete one course before unlocking access to the next one.
Provide your students with certificates or other documentation they can print and keep as evidence they've completed the course.
This is especially important in the workplace where employers may want to keep a record on hand that all employees have completed certain training (like health and safety training) in case of government inspections
Protects course content
Although it's less of the focus compared to membership plugins, LMS plugins still help to protect your course content from being accessed by non-registered members.
Maybe other features as well
Some (but not all) LMS plugins can handle payment and registration, drip content, and forum integration. Others won't have these features and you'll need to install separate plugins to handle these tasks.
How To Decide What Kind Of Plugin You Need
It all comes down to how complex your site will be, and what features and tasks you need your plugin to offer.
Here's a few example scenarios to highlight when each option would be most suitable:
- If you have one online course with a bunch of lessons broken down into modules, perhaps a quiz and a certificate at the end, then a LMS plugin might be the best choice.
- If you're planning to offer multiple different courses and membership levels, along with a bunch of extra resources and content, then you might need a combination of an LMS and membership plugin.
- If you're only going to have a few pages of content or lessons and don't necessarily need your material to follow a linear sequence, then an LMS might be overkill and just a membership plugin would do the job to restrict access and take payments.
There isn't always a 100% clear right or wrong answer as to which kind of plugin is better for your site. Sometimes one must-have feature will sway you one way, other times one option might just feel like a better option than the others.
The good news is that there are a ton of different plugins for you to choose from. But once you decide on one plugin, it's best to stick with it, since changing to a different one can be a lot of work.
That's why I'd recommend setting some time aside to evaluate all of your options and make sure you're making an informed decision before you settle on one specific plugin.
Factors To Consider
Here are some things to think about when it comes to deciding on a plugin:
1) Do you need to protect your forum or other features of your site, not just your course? Then a membership plugin is probably needed.
2) Are quizzes and assignments a must-have? You probably want to get an LMS plugin. Although if this is all you're looking for from an LMS plugin, maybe you could get by with just a separate plugin that focuses on quizzes.
3) Do you want to use a subscription model or offer recurring payments? A membership plugin is pretty much necessary, as most LMS plugins don't offer recurring payments, or their options aren't very flexible.
4) Are progress tracking and other reporting features important to you? Then an LMS plugin is the way to go.
5) Do you want to be guided through the process of creating and structuring your course? An LMS is your best option then. A membership plugin doesn't really dictate how your content will end up, and is more open-ended.
6) Looking to offer promotional coupons or free trials? You'll usually find this feature in membership plugins, and much less so in LMS plugins.
Pros And Cons Of A Membership Plugin
1) Simple and easy to get started
Most membership plugins available today are really easy to set up. You can start using them almost instantly, or at most you'll need a couple of hours to get every part of your plugin set up and ready to launch. It's really an afternoon project at most.
1) No activity tracking
Some membership plugins offer notifications, but most don't directly track student activity. Their primary purpose is restricting access to content, and that's all that some of them do. When and how the user accesses content isn't really a concern for membership plugins, so they don't track it.
2) Highly integrated with WordPress
Most membership plugins work by manipulating options within WordPress itself. They restrict access to content using standard WordPress filters or shortcodes. This makes them really compatible with WordPress and easy to use.
2) Content is locked
Every membership plugin has its own way of structuring content, so it's not something you can easily import and export between plugins.
Once you put content inside of a membership plugin, it's basically locked there forever, and makes it really hard to migrate content from one membership plugin to another.
3) Can compliment an LMS plugin well
There are many scenarios where you'll want the features of both an LMS and a Membership plugin. In these situations Membership plugins do a great job filling in where LMS plugins fall short, providing more functionality and options for membership levels, bundling of products and payment plans for example.
3) Hard to organize
Membership plugins aren't designed to neatly organize full courses like an LMS plugin is. There's no tiered architecture to the content, which can make it hard to run a full blown course on your site.
You can make do with membership shortcodes inside of posts and use custom post types, but membership plugins will never compare with the organizational abilities of LMS.
Pros And Cons Of An LMS Plugin
1) Content organization
One of membership plugin's biggest cons is one of an LMS plugin's greatest strengths. Most LMS plugins can break down content into multiple tiers. For example, courses, sections, units, and topics. That's what is needed to chronologically lay out a course for students to work through.
1) More complex
LMS plugins are designed to create all sorts of courses, from really basic ones up to the most complicated and in-depth courses you can imagine. So beginners can get overwhelmed the first time they look at all the options.
2) Quizzes and assignments
Quizzes are considered an essential part of LMS platforms. It's a feature that many users look for, so most LMS plugins have awesome quiz and assignment modules.
2) Harder to do recurring payments
LMS plugins are great if you're selling lifetime access to a course for a one-time fee. But they don't provide great support if you're looking to charge a monthly subscription or put customers on payment plans for larger purchases.
LMS plugins have reporting abilities including tracking where individual students are at in your course, how far people are in the course on average, etc.
Look for an LMS that will allow you to export and download your reports and tracking data for further investigation. LMS plugins also typically have built-in notification systems so that instructors and students can stay in communication.
3) Bundling of products and membership levels not always possible
Most LMS plugins lack the ability to bundle different products or create multiple membership levels, so if this is important to you an LMS alone won't do the job.
4) Easier to change later
Concent is easier to migrate between different LMS plugins than it is between membership plugins.
We've seen that both LMS plugins and Membership plugins have their uses and they both offer different functionality.
For most people creating an online course, a LMS plugin will be necessary to create an organized structure and a great user experience for your students.
If you have multiple courses or membership levels you may also need an membership plugin in addition to this.
Now that you have a better understanding of what each option is for, it's time for you to choose your plugin and get started creating your course!
LMS & Membership Plugin Recommendations
-> My top recommendation for membership plugins is MemberPress, which is widely regarded as one of the best options available.
-> My top recommendations for WordPress LMS plugins are LearnDash or WpCourseware
For further reading, check out my articles on:
How much does an LMS or membership site plugin cost?
There's a range of prices and different pricing models that membership site plugins might use. But the most common is to charge a one-time annual fee. Depending on which plugin you use, this might range from $100 to $350 per year.
Some other plugins charge you monthly. In that case, you might find plugins that charge $20 per month all the way up to $100 per month or more for really premium ones.
You'll need to continue paying to use your plugins in order to keep them updated and working, as well as to get support when you need it.
If you're wondering about other costs involved in creating an online course, then check out my article on How Much Does It Cost To Create An Online Course?
Are membership sites only for restricting course content?
No, membership site plugins have a wide range of applications. For example, look at Ancestry.com. They don't sell any kind of training material. Instead they use renewable memberships so people can gain access to a database and software to create their family tree online.
Other websites might use a membership site to restrict access to a podcast or other forms of online content that they're producing on a regular basis. Or even to things like recipes.
Basically, membership sites aren't just for protecting online courses and training material. You can use it to protect and restrict access to any kind of information you like.