Picking the Right WordPress LMS Theme

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Joshua Millage: Hello everyone. We are back, and as you can see, this is three of us on a bench here in Montana. It’s a little bit different format than our normal LMS cast episodes with the side-by-side video, because I’m usually in California, and Chris here is here on his beautiful farm in Montana, but today we’re going to switch it up because we’re at an off site and we thought we have a little bit of fun, and bring in our lead developer here, Mark Nelson, who is going to help us answer a few questions about WordPress LMS themes.

So, Chris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about that and then we’ll just extract all of Mark’s expertise for the audience.

Chris: So, when you build a WordPress powered learning management system, one of the first things you start Googling is WordPress LMS theme, WordPress LMS plugin, and we decided with our learning management system plugin, LifterLMS, to go the plugin route. Maybe we can start there.

Why are we using a plugin instead of a theme?

Mark: Well, the main reason that we went with a plugin is because, as you’ve seen, there’s a handful of LMSs out there that are themes, and some that are plugins.

WordPress, as a foundation, is really set as kind of a foundational layer that is you have plugins and you have themes, and there really is no difference, as far as WordPress is concerned, except for just to keep things organized. Plugins usually provide functionality. Themes provide design, and so since the LMS plugin is purely functionality driven, it’s a plugin, and so there’s kind of a line that we try to fit.

Chris: So, the big idea here is I have been messing around in WordPress for years, and some themes come with functionality, like we mentioned earlier in our pre-chat, was things like slide shows, and in your mind a clean theme is just going to be design, and then you go and grab plugins for when the functionality is needed.

Mark: Absolutely, and it’s not that the theme can’t have any functionality to it, but the functionality really needs to be driven towards the design and the layout of the site. So, I think a good example would be something like the Canvas theme by WooThemes that provides all types of functionality as far as designing and styling the site, and laying it out, as far as content.

Chris: Without coding.

Mark: Without coding, and it also doesn’t cross the line as far as providing too much in the way that plugins can provide. So, when you talk about things like caching, and SEO, and different things like that, you want to be able use plugins to provide that functionality, and it keeps things clean. It keeps a lot of conflicts from happening when you do that.

It gives you a lot more functionality because what you really want to do is, ideally, you want to have a site with all this functionality built into it that you can quickly just grab a new theme, add a new theme to it, and still maintain the functionality, and just change the layout and design.

Chris: That’s really cool. So, with the LifterLMS plugin, what we say is that it works with any well coded WordPress theme, and we kind of want to impact that a little bit and talk about what that means, and how to select a theme, but as a starting point what we’re saying here is it’ll work with any good theme.

Pick a good theme that works for you, in terms of design and layout, and it’s responsive behavior on a mobile device, or iPad, or whatever. That’s really what the theme is for, but in terms of picking a well coded theme, there’s a couple of things you want to avoid.

Number one is one of the other WordPress learning management system themes. If you install the LifterLMS plugin, it can create conflicts because they’re both trying to do the same thing, or similar things.

Can you talk about that a little bit, Mark?

Mark: Yeah, so if you look at some of the elements plugin themes, what they’ve done is they either have themes built into them that provide some … or plugins built into them that provide some functionality, or they’ve gone to the point of just including a bunch of different functionality into the theme, and when our plugin gets installed, and we have courses, and lessons, and sections, and quizzes, and your theme also has courses, lessons, sections, and quizzes, there’s obviously a conflict there.

Besides that, you have the issue of just having a constant nightmare of trying to organize that, so I think that’s a big point.

Chris: Another thing, when we say well coded WordPress theme, recently we were experimenting with the theme that was popular about three or four years ago called Thesis, and we ran into some trouble with the LifterLMS plugin on that theme. It still worked, but maybe you could tell us why it didn’t work out with the Thesis theme, which I want to caution you about if you’re selecting a theme to not pick that one for LifterLMS, but what happened?

Mark: Right, and it’s not that necessarily Thesis is written badly at all, in any way, but what Thesis has done is they’ve I guess you would say hijacked the templating system of WordPress to provide their own templating functionality, which is fantastic for case scenarios, but what it does for plugins like ours, plugins like WooCommerce, and any other plugins that build templating features in order to provide things like products, or courses. It doesn’t … It just completely hijacks it so it won’t work at all out of the gate. It requires an extension to be built in order to replicate those templates again in the Thesis theme.

Chris: Well, let’s wrap it up and leave people with some specific ideas of where to go to find a good WordPress theme that would work with the LifterLMS plugin. All of us have worked with a lot of different WordPress themes, and so far in our experimentation with LifterLMS, some of the major players like WooThemes, and we mentioned the Canvas theme but Woo has a lot of themes.

Another one is the StudioPress. Those themes which are built … are themes, are child themes built on top of the Genesis framework. We’ve done some testing there, and those look very beautiful, but you can also go out to ThemeForest, or other themes, and try things out and just see how it goes, but look for themes that aren’t trying to do too much stuff that a plugin should do. Look for good design, but not necessarily lots of extra functionality coming from the theme itself. That’s really what plugins are for, and …

Mark: Can you give an example of what that looks like, Chris? Like, what’s a theme that’s doing a lot of plugin things that you think would conflict with what we’ve built, or something that people should be cautious of?

Chris: Well, I would say one thing we mentioned is sometimes sliders that are built into themes can be a start to hijack the WordPress core. We call it custom post types. If there’s a lot of like really fancy stuff the theme is trying to do in terms of custom post types, it may be an indicator that, “Oh, I might not want to go that one,” so that’s something to be cautious of.

Another thing is when you install WordPress, as you know, it comes with the 2012, 2013, 2014 theme. Those are great themes if you’re looking for a free theme and just want to learn the plugin, and all the functionality it has.

I actually recommend 2012 as the most simple looking theme that comes with the WordPress install that’s one hundred percent going to work in every way, so that’s a good place to start and it’s also free.

Mark: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of the Genesis framework. I think they’ve just … They’ve done an amazing way of building the child themes, so you have this huge selection of all these great themes with all this awesome functionality, and the framework itself is just really well built and it’s built around the WordPress core so that it doesn’t hijack anything there.

Yeah, WooThemes is another great one. I think you just want to be cautious of themes that just look too good, have too much functionality. A lot of theme designers today really, to sell the theme, add a lot of slide shows and special widgets, and a lot of extra functionality in order to really make the theme look good, but in the end it ends up causing you more trouble.

Ideally, what you want is something that looks good, and is easy to style, and design yourself without a developer, and if you want slide shows, if you want extra widgets, if you want social sharing, you can get free plugins or you can purchase plugins to get that functionality.

That way you’re not tied to a theme, because what you don’t want to happen is two or three years down the road, end up wanting to change the design of your site, which happens every three years or so anyway. Now your locked into this theme because all the functionality that you have built into your system comes from your theme, and you’re either forced into buying another theme from the same provider, or having to completely redo the system from scratch.

Chris: So, if you have a question of like will this theme work, go ahead and send an email to [email protected], and I also want to say that when you buy or purchase LifterLMS, you also get access to our support forum.

So, we’re going to have discussions there where you can really help find the best theme for your business, or your education application. So, it’s just one of the perks of joining the LifterLMS community so that you have that community, and people have tried different things, and you can really access the ideas and what has happened for other people trying to do the same thing you are.

Feel free to email me directly at [email protected].

Joshua Millage: Yeah, and if you have been watching the video and you feel like me, sitting between these two geniuses, with some extra questions, just feel free to email any of us here @LifterLMS.

It’s Chris@LifterLMS, Joshua@LifterLMS, Mark@LifterLMS, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Other than that, we will see you next episode.

And if you’re an already successful expert, teacher or entrepreneur looking to grow, check out the LifterLMS team’s signature service called Boost. It’s a complete done for you set up service where your learning platform goes live in just 5 days.

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