October 13th, 2020 LearnDash Tips

What does it mean to run a membership course, and do you need a plugin to make it work?

What came first, the membership plugin or the LMS? We get questions about both constantly. Our users want to know if our LMS will protect their content the way a membership plugin does, or they want to know if they need a membership plugin to manage the users on their course. Sometimes they’ve just heard the phrase “membership plugin” mentioned so many times that they are convinced they must need it—even though they don’t really know what it is.

Membership is a big part of online learning, but it’s not integral to it. At the same time, many users can get the key benefits of a membership plugin without needing to install one on their site. But there are also cases where only a membership plugin will do, and educators have to understand what those situations are in order to make the best choices for their course and for their learners.

So, without further ado, let’s jump in and take a closer look.

What’s the difference between a membership site and an LMS?

Membership sites and LMSs have a lot in common—enough so that many people get them confused. However, despite the extensive overlap, there are some use cases wherein you might need an LMS, but not a membership plugin, and vice versa.

For instance, if you are offering an open course that anyone can take without having to formally register, you wouldn’t need a membership site. For example, if you’ve ever filled out an online personality quiz, or taken part in an informal online survey, you’ve used the same quiz functionality offered by an LMS like LearnDash.

On the other hand, some groups have extensive resources that they want to keep gated, but don’t require any quiz functions. These might include private archives or compilations of professional resources. In this case, the organizers are using membership functions, but without the features of an LMS.

However, if you are offering an online course that uses the lesson hierarchy and assessment tools of an LMS, but also want to sell memberships to your course content, then you’ll need something more. Fortunately, LearnDash has the content protection as well as the LMS features you need to create a course.

How to use LearnDash as a membership plugin.

We recently announced that LearnDash had expanded its group function such that it now operates as a full-blown membership plugin. This means that, if you want to create a membership course with multiple levels of content access, you can now do that completely within LearnDash. To understand how, let’s discuss a few of the core features of any good membership plugin.

Content access.

To be clear, LearnDash has always offered content protection—otherwise, our users wouldn’t be able to sell access. In controlling access, users have several options:

    • An open course doesn’t require membership or registration. It can be useful to have some courses on your site open, as a marketing tool to familiarize potential learners with your course.
    • A free course requires users to create a user account and register. This is a more valuable marketing tool than an open course, because you can then follow-up with learners about course offers.
    • This option requires users to create a user account and register, and places all content behind a paywall. Only users who have registered and paid can access closed content.

Note: LearnDash includes two other access settings, “Buy Now” and “Recurring.” However, these cannot be used with shopping carts or other membership plugins, although they will still protect content access.

User roles.

One of the most important features a membership plugin can offer is the ability to control the user permissions of various members. User permissions in LearnDash use WordPress’s existing user management systems, which allow you to manage user roles from their profile and assign them different attributes. Users can be assigned more than one role at a time, which can help you fine-tune their permissions.

In LearnDash, two user roles are particularly important:

    • Group user. When a learner is enrolled into a group, they become a group user. This means they will have access to other courses within their group or subgroup.
    • Group leader. A group leader has management control over their groups, including adding and removing members. An admin can even assign group leaders the ability to create their own courses!

Group hierarchy.

Finally, LearnDash’s group function allows users to create hierarchies within their group structures, which can further control who has access to a certain course. If, for instance, you wanted to offer a course with content accessible to all registrants, but then also divide users into distinct cohorts, you would be able to do that by creating a subgroup.

In this arrangement, learners who had been placed into a subgroup would have access to all content in the umbrella group as well as content in their specific subgroup. However, a group manager who had been put in charge of that subgroup would only be able to manage learners within that subgroup, but not in the larger umbrella group unless given permission.

These features cover the most common scenarios that we encounter from our users. That said, LearnDash does not cover every use cases, and there are instances where working with a membership plugin can be a better solution.

Using LearnDash with a membership plugin.

Every day, users come to us with new use cases that we could never have predicted, and we can’t design our plugin to meet them all. Fortunately, because we run on WordPress, our users aren’t restricted by this. If they have another membership plugin they choose to use for whatever reason, they can still build it into their site. Here are some of the popular options.

  • WP User Manager. This plugin isn’t a full membership plugin, because it doesn’t involve any payment options. However, it does allow you to establish a user directory through which you can control access.
  • MemberPress. MemberPress offers lots of access controls as well as coupons, reporting tools, and Zapier integration.
  • Paid Membership Pro. Restrict content by type, even down to the level of single pages. Offer unlimited membership levels and multi-tiered membership.
  • Wishlist Member. Wishlish Member offer flexible content protection, including archiving tools to encourage users to maintain their subscriptions, and partial display options to give un-registered users a sneak peak at your content without offering full access.
  • Restrict Content Pro. This plugin provides a lot of integrations along with membership levels, a custom dashboard, and prorated upgrades and downgrades.

Membership courses give you more control over how you manage your community.

The great value membership courses bring to educators is that they create structure and continuity for learners. When a learner creates a user account, it gives them a tool for managing their user profiles, checking their account history, and accessing past purchases. It also gives course creators the ability to contact those learners with more courses, expand or restrict their access, and learn about how their learners engage with their course material.

Whether you choose to use LearnDash to manage your learner membership or a 3rd party membership plugin to expand your capabilities, having these capabilities will help you create a robust community for your course that will serve you well for years to come.


2 responses

Leave a Comment

Hi there,

Great article and very well explained!

Just a few quick and small questions…

1. Which membership plugins support selling/protecting access to groups/subgroups?

2. Which of those plugins also work well with BuddyBoss to show or sell groups/subgroups?

3. Which of those plugins are well integrated with ActiveCampaign so that it’s possible to add/remove students to automations based on course enrollments and course progress?

I’m already a LearnDash customer and I’m really excited about LearnDash groups. Your answers will help me make the most of it for our institute.

Thank you in advance!



Appreciate the advice. If you provide the criteria of what things provide we can make decisions.

I am looking around for a consultant that can look at our requirements and “dream” a bit so we can gain ideas before acting and aborting. That seems to be the bad things about themes and plugin “partners” nobody is willing to say use this for that – leaving the buyer with all the risk unless they buy and abort, buy and abort, buy and abort until they find the combination of things that work for their environment.

I can’t seem to find anyone knowledgeable enough with multiple LD plugins and options to help me navigate… I we just sit and do nothing.

LearnDash needs a customer advocate to sift through options and help people decide with more confidence.

I find it very cowardly and selfish to provide a bunch of plugin or theme options and not give someone a basic consultation to help them find their combination of tools.

Will theme providers talk to anyone? No. Buy and pray. Seek and never find. Spend and waste time and money.

I need someone to really help me without prejudice offer hard advice without worry of “offending their partners”.

I use DIVI on all my sites except SecurityInstitute.com to accommodate LearnDash quick startup with Elementor and the Astra LearnDash theme. Now I need to know if that paid theme has been updated.

I hire developers and do some work myself. Appreciate your new attempts to help customers of LearnDash.

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