When it comes to managing your own e-learning platform, there are more options today than ever. From dedicated third-party platforms like Canvas and Blackboard to WordPress LMS plugins like LearnDash and LifterLMS to custom-built in-house tech, the choices can quickly become overwhelming. Making the wrong decision can have lasting impacts on your ability to grow and adapt to your market, so it’s important to weigh your options carefully.
We’ve spent the past seven years working with clients who have tried all of these approaches and through their experiences we’ve seen plenty of great successes and unfortunate failures. While our agency specializes in building and managing Wordpress-based learning management systems, not every platform has the same needs. In this article, we want to share our experience with developing and managing WordPress LMS platforms to help you decide on the right approach for you.
We’ll start with a quick summary of the three most common approaches and touch on the pros and cons of each:
- Using WordPress with LMS plugins. This approach involves hosting your own WordPress website with an LMS plugin installed such as LearnDash, LifterLMS, Tutor LMS, or one of the many other plugins available in the ecosystem.
- Using an existing purpose-built LMS platform. This approach involves using a pre-built platform from an LMS vendor such as Canvas, Blackboard, Absorb, Google Classroom, and many more.
- Developing a custom in-house LMS. This approach involves hiring developers to build a completely custom LMS from scratch that’s fully tailored to your needs.
Then we’ll dive a little deeper into the different factors that may influence your decision to use one of these approaches over another, such as:
- Ease of use
You can use the links above to skip to the section that interests you most. By the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of the pros and cons of a WordPress LMS and will be able to decide which approach is right for you.
No need to scroll for hours to find our conclusions. Here’s a high-level overview of all the information you’ll find in this article distilled into pros and cons lists. Be sure to read on to discover the nuances of these pros and cons lists.
Should I use WordPress for my LMS?
A WordPress LMS is best for most businesses that need a highly flexible and scalable platform that keeps development, hosting, and management costs low as the user count grows.
Should I use an existing vendor’s LMS platform?
A vendor LMS is best for those looking to launch a minimum viable product as quickly as possible. This can be a low-barrier way to test the market for your learning content or to identify LMS features that are critical or missing before investing in a custom-built platform. A vendor LMS can also be a good choice if there’s strong alignment between the vendor’s offering and the business needs and there are no plans to ever go beyond that feature set.
Should I use an LMS developed in-house?
A custom in-house LMS is best for large companies, school boards, or organizations with millions of users or extremely high levels of concurrency. A custom LMS may also be the best option when the level of customization required makes it unfeasible to build off existing WordPress plugins and when revenue from the platform is high enough to offset the added management and development overhead compared to a WordPress LMS.
Factors to consider when building a WordPress LMS
Now that you’ve seen an overview of these three approaches for building your LMS, let’s dive a little deeper into each of the factors that might affect your decision to choose one approach over another.
If you’re looking to build your own LMS, it’s safe to assume that you’re looking for more flexibility than self-publishing course websites like Teachable and Udemy currently offer. Maybe you want to sell your products in a unique way, maybe you need customized roles for teachers and students, or maybe your quizzes need special question formats. Whatever the reason, when it comes to flexible platforms that can be tailored to an individual LMS’ needs, WordPress is king.
Now you might be thinking to yourself: “wait a minute, developing my own custom LMS gives me total control, so shouldn’t an in-house LMS be more flexible?” And your assumptions would be correct; a custom in-house LMS can always be made exactly to spec no matter your needs. But flexibility isn’t just the ability to choose an initial approach, it’s also the ability to adapt quickly to changes down the road.
While a custom LMS may be more flexible in theory, the time and investment required to make changes to a complex custom e-learning platform can make ongoing changes unfeasible in practice. With WordPress, adding or testing a new feature can often involve as little as taking a few seconds to install a plugin, which allows more flexibility when it comes to validating ideas or making changes on an ongoing basis.
Building your LMS on a third-party vendor platform offers the least amount of flexibility, but that may not be a bad thing if the features of the platform are perfectly in line with your needs. In our experience, many people building an LMS for the first time don’t have a full understanding of their long-term needs for the platform, so locking the business into an inflexible LMS platform can have expensive repercussions in the long run. On top of that, building on a vendor platform comes with higher risk, since the success of your business is fully reliant on that vendor. If the vendor changes their pricing model or feature set in a way that’s incompatible with your business model, you’re stuck.
In short, even though using a WordPress LMS may result in less initial control over the underlying architecture of the platform, the flexibility you get from WordPress provides enough cost-saving opportunities and momentum to your business to allow you to experiment and try new things. That flexibility will benefit most LMS owners in the long run.
When it comes to scaling a platform to tens or hundreds of thousands of users, any LMS platform is going to face an uphill battle to get everything running smoothly. At its core, an LMS is an e-commerce system stacked on top of a membership system stacked on top of a progression system. Any of these systems individually would require a lot of processing power and when bundled together in an LMS, small inefficiencies in the site’s setup can quickly become massive headaches.
This is compounded by LMS sites being difficult to cache. Caching a page or its pieces involves saving a pre-built copy of each page so that when a user visits a page, they’re served the saved version of a webpage instead of requiring the server to build a fresh page each to a user visits the site. Unfortunately for LMS owners, these caching techniques aren’t as simple to implement since so much of the data being served to a user—course progress, quiz results, etc.—is unique to each individual user.
So which approach is best from the perspective of scalability? In this case, building a custom LMS platform catered to your needs is always going to be the best option for long-term scalability. With complete control over the underlying software and server setup, going custom will provide the best results, assuming the platform is built by experienced LMS developers.
On the other hand, going with a dedicated LMS vendor is more of a mixed bag. Large LMS platforms will generally have powerful servers designed to handle the needs of an LMS as it grows. The caveat is that these platforms often engage in cost-saving measures by hosting multiple LMS platforms on shared servers. This can mean that during peak hours, your site may be slower simply because the neighbours on your server are hogging all the server’s resources. Self-hosting your LMS can ensure that you don’t have to deal with pesky server-mates affecting performance for your users. We’ll touch on cost factors in more detail below, but it’s also relevant to note that vendors will often charge based on user count, meaning that even though their server technology may be able to handle a large user base, your bank account may not.
Where does WordPress stand in all of this? WordPress as a platform often gets a bad reputation because of its table schema which can cause database queries to take longer as the tables get larger. For the less tech savvy among us, imagine a library with a growing collection of books; the more books the library stores, the longer it will take to walk between the aisles to find the book you’re looking for. The WordPress platform was initially designed for blogging, which means that the massive amount of individual user data required to run an LMS can risk bloating the database and slow down the site if the site’s plugins and theme aren’t properly chosen and optimized for scalability.
That’s not to say that WordPress platforms can’t scale, it simply means that—just like a library—building a large WordPress site that’s quick to query requires proper planning and architecture. Our agency has successfully built WordPress e-learning sites that perform well with over 200,000 users using a mix of custom hosting, caching, and database management solutions that we’ve developed in-house. While not everyone will need to support this many users, it’s still good to know that a well-built WordPress LMS can offer plenty of headroom. Above 500,000-700,000 users, there starts to be a tradeoff between performance gains and development costs that can make it worthwhile to consider a custom-built LMS. Another factor that might bolster the case for a custom LMS is when concurrency is high—in other words when a large number of users are engaging with the learning material at the same time. Businesses that have high levels of concurrency, such as school boards with fixed class times or businesses with massive live training events, may benefit from the performance benefits of a custom-built LMS. Even then, the low overhead of a WordPress site can still make it a compelling option for anything but the most massive of LMS platforms. In fact, our agency has built WordPress sites that support 10,000-20,000 users logged in to the platform at once. At that scale and below, we expect that a WordPress LMS will serve most businesses best, since the high costs of a custom-developed platform will outweigh any performance benefits.
All three approaches are impacted by a tradeoff between scalability and cost. On an existing vendor’s LMS, costs tend to grow linearly as your platform’s user count grows. On both custom LMS platforms and WordPress LMSs, this tradeoff isn’t quite as linear. This is because one of the easiest strategies for solving scalability issues with a self-hosted LMS is to throw more hardware at it. In other words, it’s often quicker and easier to simply pay for more server resources rather than waiting for your engineering team to fix all the bottlenecks to optimize the site. While that can raise costs in the short term, it’s also an opportunity in the long term since it’s possible to invest in software optimization to lower ongoing hosting costs. With an LMS vendor, you’re stuck with their pricing and aren’t able to strategically manage your costs in line with your business’ growth.
To sum it all up, whether the LMS is custom-built, purchased through a third-party vendor, or self-hosted on WordPress, scalability will always be a concern. A custom-built LMS will be the most scalable, but given the development costs, most will find that a WordPress LMS will better suit their needs under a half-million users. Scaling an LMS hosted on a vendor’s site will be easiest, but will also likely cost the most while being less flexible.
It’s not uncommon to find people on the web leveling accusations against WordPress stating that it’s less secure than other content management systems (CMS). And that isn’t entirely undeserved; WordPress is the CMS with the greatest number of vulnerabilities identified each year. Does this mean that the WordPress platform lacks security? The answer isn’t quite so simple.
While WordPress may have the most vulnerabilities, it’s important to keep in mind that it is also by far the most popular CMS, representing a market share of 63% of all websites on the internet. By comparison, the next most popular CMS, Joomla, represents just 4.2% of websites and Drupal represents only 2.8%. In other words, it wouldn’t be surprising for WordPress to have 15 times more vulnerabilities than other CMS platforms since its market share is 15 times larger. This difference in market share alone doesn’t fully account for the difference in vulnerabilities.
The other half of the story is that most of the vulnerabilities don’t come from WordPress itself, they come from third-party plugins and themes. In fact, the vulnerability scanning tool WPScan identified that plugins represent a whopping 97% of identified vulnerabilities, compared to just 3% of vulnerabilities coming from the core CMS. Another leader in WordPress security, Patchstack, released a whitepaper in 2021 indicating that of all the vulnerable plugins, 91.4% of issues were found in free plugins with premium plugins accounting for just 8.6% of vulnerabilities.
This means that when you account for CMS market share and making responsible plugin choices, a WordPress LMS is typically safer than other systems just because there are more eyes on the platform. There are tens of thousands of security researchers around the globe working around the clock to identify issues with WordPress given that it’s the most popular CMS on the market. The same can’t be said of an LMS built on any other platform.
An LMS built on a custom or existing third-party platform achieves most of its security through obscurity; its relative lack of popularity means that it’s not a target for hackers. Unfortunately, this also means that it doesn’t benefit from the scrutiny of security research identifying vulnerabilities, which means that issues may be more likely to go unresolved.
In the end, while the security statistics look damning for WordPress at first glance, an LMS built with WordPress will often have fewer vulnerabilities than a custom-built or third-party LMS. The caveat here is that part of this security comes from making smart plugin choices, and knowing how to navigate the WordPress ecosystem safely requires having a good industry knowledge of which plugin developers are reputable. That’s why it’s best to work with an agency that can recommend reputable plugins for your LMS.
WordPress powers over half the internet and for good reason; it has a massive ecosystem of plugins that allow the platform to be easily modified to build nearly any type of site imaginable. When it comes to adding features within an LMS, the extensibility of WordPress offers far more flexibility than an LMS from a third-party vendor and also allows adding features more quickly and easily than a custom-built LMS.
When it comes to building your LMS with a proprietary vendor, this can be a great low-effort way to get an e-learning site off the ground and decide what features are necessary for your business. If the values and trajectory of your business are perfectly aligned with the vendor’s platform, then you’ll be set up for success. But trouble arises the moment you’re not in full alignment with the vendor since you have no agency over the direction their software is going. Want to add a new quiz type or comply with some accreditation board that will allow you to land some big clients? When you’re locked in with a third-party vendor, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to extend your platform to capitalize on those opportunities.
A custom-built LMS, on the other hand, is infinitely extensible. In theory. We’ve spoken to some of our clients who have been drawn in by the allure of total control offered by a custom in-house LMS only to have our agency move them back to WordPress. What they found was that the overhead of building, managing, and experimenting with new features on an LMS wasn’t worth the marginal increase in control and extensibility. For example, if a user were to request the addition of a new option to organize their courses or if a platform leader requested a new field by which to filter their users, WordPress has so many plugins and helper functions that it can often take less than five minutes to deploy these kinds of features. On an in-house platform, the process usually involves adding the request to your developers’ already overflowing backlog in the hopes that they’ll get around to it in a few weeks. The pace of iteration is slow and can’t keep up with the need to experiment and validate your needs as a business. Based on the LMS platforms we’ve helped clients move away from, we’ve seen that businesses need truly massive scale to justify the overhead of an in-house LMS compared to a much more easily extensible WordPress site.
When it comes to adding new features, WordPress may be the simplest choice, but that doesn’t mean that extending the functionality of a WordPress LMS is always a breeze. The ease of extending a WordPress platform comes from the wealth of plugins in its ecosystem. But this comes with some limitations. With WordPress, if there’s an inherent problem with a core third-party plugin that you can’t easily replace at a moment’s notice, your development team can’t just start forking and modifying other people’s plugins, since that would limit your ability to update that plugin in the future. Instead, the solution typically involves applying bandaid patches and moving on in order to get over those humps quickly as you grow. This can result in a codebase that doesn’t feel quite as clean as one that’s fully controlled and vetted in-house. While WordPress sites are at the mercy of third-party plugin developers, this isn’t as big of a concern as it sounds. For any issue or required feature on a WordPress LMS, there are often a dozen plugins and well-documented solutions to any given problem. On top of that, you can always build your own plugins, so there’s very little lock-in.
In the previous section, we looked at extending the features within the LMS itself. But what about integrating an LMS with external tools?
As you might expect, an LMS from an existing vendor is fairly fixed in the integrations it offers. Some well-established vendors may have a massive number of integrations whereas other newer platforms with more features and a better interface might not have as many integrations since they’re so new to the market. In either case, the integrations tend to be fixed, and integrating your LMS with a new service might be costly or impossible.
Custom-built LMS platforms exist on the other end of the spectrum; anything is possible! With a custom LMS, you have full control over the platform’s architecture and the tools you choose to integrate with. But just like with the other factors we’ve discussed in this post, that flexibility comes at the expense of development time and costs.
In many ways, a WordPress LMS sites on the middle ground between the wealth of existing integrations found on third-party platforms and the development flexibility of a custom-built platform. Its open-source ecosystem makes a great case for itself with over 70,000 plugins that extend its functionality. However, when it comes to LMS-specific integrations and reporting data to external sources, WordPress LMS sites don’t always offer plug-and-play integration with industry-standard tools.
Let’s look more closely at one of the most common integrations found in an LMS: data reporting. Most modern LMS reporting standards are quite young, having been established just in the last five years. WordPress LMS plugins like LearnDash and LifterLMS predate many of those standards, having been launched in 2013 and 2014 respectively. This means that many of the popular WordPress LMS plugins were built with the WordPress paradigm in mind rather than the broader LMS paradigm and haven’t been designed to support LMS reporting standards.
The good news is it’s much easier to develop custom integrations on WordPress than it is to develop on a custom-built platform and there are new (free!) integrations being built and released every day. Our agency has helped many WordPress LMS owners set up reporting systems by deploying a learning records store (LRS) that integrates with our clients’ existing LMS to store activity that happens on their platform. An LRS is a common open standard in the world of e-learning platforms that allows the data to be connected to a reporting tool like PowerBI or Tableau. On other occasions, we’ve integrated WordPress LMS sites with single sign-on products, rostering tools, and a lot more. By taking existing WordPress plugins and modifying them to fit our needs, we’ve been able to develop custom inttegrations in less time than it would have taken on a comparable custom-built LMS that would have required building the integration from scratch. There are also plenty of WordPress add-ons like ProPanel and Tin Canny that add LMS integrations such as reporting without any custom development required. This means that a small LMS can benefit from reporting integrations at a low cost while a larger LMS can benefit from offloading its reporting to an LRS to keep WordPress running quickly even when generating massive reports.
WordPress offers the most flexible approach to adding integrations by providing the low cost and instant feedback of its native plugin catalog along with the flexibility of custom development when necessary.
One of the most important factors in many business decisions comes down to cost. When choosing an LMS platform, every benefit or tradeoff needs to be weighed against its cost. For example, a custom-built LMS may be the most flexible approach, but hiring a developer to maintain the platform will probably result in massive overhead costs. Similarly, an LMS from an existing third-party vendor may offer low upfront costs, but as the business outgrows its current featureset or tries to modify its offering to expand into new markets, it’s sure to encounter massive switching costs.
Since most businesses can’t anticipate every single feature their LMS might require for years to come, we’ve seen that a WordPress LMS tends to offer the best balance between initial startup costs and long-term costs. With a WordPress site, the initial costs can be as low as the price of hosting and a few plugin licenses. The cost of customization is also kept low both because WordPress developers are readily available and because exiting tools and plugins can be used or modified to build the exact functionality the project requires. The long-term costs of a WordPress LMS are also easily managed since hosting is fully within your control and maintenance can sometimes be as simple a taking a few seconds to update a plugin.
While the affordability and flexibility of WordPress is hard to beat, there are cases to be made for other approaches too. At a certain scale, WordPress’ database architecture can be a limiting factor in the performance, hosting, and maintenance costs of an LMS. As mentioned above, the ceiling of WordPress’ capabilities starts to become apparent somewhere over 500,000 users and as an LMS scales beyond that point, the performance benefits of a custom-built LMS starts to outweigh the development and management overhead.
Other businesses will find that the low-upfront cost of a vendor’s ready-made LMS offers the best value. This is particularly true when the priority is to build the LMS as an MVP in order to experiment and figure out its limitations. This can also be a good approach for businesses who know their LMS needs won’t change in the future and are able to find a vendor that offers every feature they need.