WordPress LMS Plugin Comparison
Thrive Architect vs LearnDash VS LifterLMS VS Tutor LMS
Compare 4 of the top WordPress LMS plugins in 2023 and discover which is the best solution to build, protect and sell access to your online courses.
Explore and compare each LMS plugin against course creation, visual design, drip features, quizzes, completion certificates, integrations, pricing, support and more.
If you’re looking to offer online courses using WordPress, you’ll need a professional LMS plugin to help build, organize and manage access to your lessons. But with so many options available in 2023, which plugin should you choose? Use this guide to compare WordPress LMS plugins so you can make an informed choice for your online school.
We’re a bit biased of course, since we offer our own fantastic LMS plugin, but we’ve been fair and objective in our research and analysis – we believe every tool that helps you achieve your business goals is a great addition to the WordPress scene.
Which LMS plugins are we comparing? Let's meet them...
Other LMS Plugins
Course Creation Tools
LMS plugins are defined by their course creation and access restriction features. Let’s explore how each of these popular WordPress LMS plugins give you the ability to build and protect online courses and lessons to offer your students a professional learner-focused experience
01. School and Course Setup
Thrive Apprentice includes a powerful School Setup Wizard that helps you quickly get started building an online course. It offers an easy-to-use dashboard for choosing your logo, brand colors, header, footer, lessons templates, sidebar and more.
This allows you to skip all the lengthy configuration that usually comes with setting up a new LMS plugin, safe in the knowledge your school and courses will look amazing. Of course, you can fully customize any part of your school setup later.
Building your first course is also easy... create a new course, give it a name, and start adding your lessons. You can optionally organize them into chapters and modules if you want, but it’s not essential if you have a short or very linear course syllabus.
Creating lessons is also easy... add a lesson title, choose the type of lesson (e.g. text, video, audio), add a short summary and an optional cover image. If you’re creating a video or audio lesson, you can quickly add your video or audio URL, such as YouTube, Vimeo, or Soundcloud, and Thrive Apprentice will do the rest of the work for you. Finally, it’s time to add your lesson text content and any additional learning resources your students might need.
Watch this quick video to help understand the process:
LearnDash includes a helpful Setup Wizard that leads you through getting started with the LMS plugin.
We liked the fact they lead you through the payment tool setup here – it’s entirely optional at this stage, but it’s a nice addition to the experience.
Here you can configure the main options for your online courses, as well as select a Starter Template design to customize. The Setup Wizard lets you test several fonts and color palettes, and preview how your choice looks in real-time. This is a nice touch and provides the user with some basic brand customization options.
However... we did not like discovering that these Starter Templates are provided by 3rd party companies (e.g. Astra, Kadence etc.) without any indication this was the case. Suddenly the Setup Wizard felt more like a way for other brands to promote their themes and templates without it being made clear to the end user.
LearnDash guides you through their course creation process step-by-step, and features helpful tutorial videos embedded directly into the WordPress dashboard. It features a Builder that lets you drag-and-drop lessons and sections into a logical course structure.
The Builder doesn’t seem to support topics (modules) or mid-course quizzes however, so you’ll need to add these in later using their respective WordPress options.
LifterLMS does not feature a simplified way of setting up your online school environment. After installing the plugin, the user is expected to configure the LMS settings within different WordPress menu items and sub-tabs.
Adding a new course simply takes the user to the WordPress page editor, with no clear guidance on how this relates to the course creation process, and with no clear way to add lessons.
The secret is to scroll down the editor page until you find the button called Course Builder.
Once you find this button, you can then begin building out the structure of your course using LifterLMS’s drag-and-drop interface. This has the potential to be very helpful, but it’s held back with cryptic icons instead of useful labels. Unfortunately, LifterLMS’s Course Builder feels like the start of a good idea that never quite received the development attention their users deserve.
Tutor LMS also has a Setup Wizard that helps new users to get started building their online course.
Interestingly, the first question the Setup Wizard asks is: “Do you want to create an individual online course environment, or an online marketplace for others to create courses?”
This is an interesting angle that sets Tutor LMS apart from the other LMS plugins in this comparison.
The Tutor LMS Setup Wizard lets you toggle on and establish basic settings for your courses, such as instructor bios, Q&A forums, a courses page layout, and how much of the revenue is to be split between the instructors and website owner... again a unique meta feature not found in any other LMS plugin.
Creating your first course with Tutor LMS is less impressive however, as the plugin throws you into the standard WordPress page editor with no guidance or support. Of course, it’s possible to self-learn your way through the process as many setting options are supported with tutorial text and helpful labels.
As you scroll down the page editor, you can create topics, lessons and quizzes using the Course Builder.
Overall, Tutor LMS does a good job of maintaining a balance between offering powerful functionality while keeping the interface simple and friendly.
02. Access Restrictions
Thrive Apprentice lets you control who can access your online courses (as well as other protected content... more on this soon) with flexible access rules based on a student’s status.
This means you can offer:
- Free courses to general visitors
- Free courses to logged in users
- Premium courses to paying customers
And yes, you can offer free lessons within paid courses as a great way to generate sales.
If someone tries to access a course without the correct access permission, you can also choose what they see! For visitors without the correct permissions, you can:
- Display custom content for them
- Redirect them to a login or registration page
- Redirect them to a custom page (such as a sales page)
LearnDash lets you create the following types of courses:
- Open - These courses are available to anyone on your website – no registration, login or payment required. This type of course does not support linear progression... students can access any lessons in any order.
- Free - These courses are only for logged in users, but they do not require payment.
- Buy Now - Courses for logged in users who purchase with Stripe, PayPal or 2Checkout.
- Recurring - Courses that require a regular subscription payment.
- Closed - Courses that cannot be purchased directly, but must be bought using an eCommerce or membership add-on.
It is technically possible to redirect someone to another URL if they don’t have access to a course, but requires custom coding skills (according to LearnDash’s documentation)...
LifterLMS lets you create the following types of courses:
- Free - These courses are only for logged in users, but do not require payment.
- Purchased - Courses for logged in users who purchase with a support payment tool.
LifterLMS provides access to courses through Memberships – which are similar to Thrive Apprentice’s Products feature – and can contain access to multiple courses as well as access restricted WordPress content. Memberships can be purchased with a single payment or a recurring subscription model, depending on the payment tool used.
Users trying to access a course without permission (unenrolled view in LifterLMS) can be either:
- Shown the display default course content
- Shown custom content
- Redirected to a WordPress page
- Redirected to a custom URL
LifterLMS does not offer any advanced conditional display features, except the ability to automatically change menu items based on the users’ logged in status.
It’s hard to find information on which types of course access restrictions are supported by Tutor LMS.
Their payment integration documentation makes it clear Tutor LMS supports single-purchase paid courses and recurring payments through tools like Paid Memberships Pro and WooCommerce Subscriptions, but it’s not clear if you can create public courses for non-logged-in users.
It’s also unclear how Tutor LMS handles users trying to access courses they don’t yet have permission for...
Are visitors redirected? Shown a generic message?
03. Lesson Formats & Learning Resources
Out of the box, Thrive Apprentice offers 3 ready-to-go lesson formats: text, video and audio.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t add video to text lessons, or text to audio lessons! You can add anything to your lessons.
The pre-set text, video and audio formats simply allow you to easily use Thrive Apprentice’s professionally designed lesson templates that are specifically built to showcase their respective formats. Lessons can include text, embedded videos, audio players, quizzes, images, tables, toggles, and anything else you want.
Each lesson in Thrive Apprentice can also feature optional Lesson Resources to help support your students’ learning goals. These can be downloadable files like PDFs, links to internal content, or links to external websites for further reading. Lesson Resources are easy to modify later without directly editing the lesson content, making them quick to maintain when older resources need updating.
LearnDash does not offer dedicated lesson templates for text, video or audio.
It utilizes the standard WordPress editor to add content to lessons – if you want a lesson with a featured video, for example, you’ll need to add it to the lesson content directly, via the WordPress Gutenberg editor (or your choice of 3rd party page builder).
LearnDash does feature Learning Materials, which are equivalent to Thrive Apprentice’s Lesson Resources, where you can add additional resources for your students (e.g. PDFs, images, downloadable audio files, links to other websites.)
LifterLMS does not offer different lesson templates to support dedicated text, audio or video lessons.
Each lesson uses the same template and is edited using the Gutenberg WordPress editor. This means LifterLMS lessons can include anything supported by Gutenberg, such as tables, images, columns and custom HTML.
However, LifterLMS does allow you to embed an audio or video file using the specialized backend fields it provides. These automatically feature the media at the top of the lesson.
Unfortunately, lesson resources need to be added manually as part of the LifterLMS lesson content.
Tutor LMS supports 2 different lesson formats: standard and video.
Standard lessons can include any media or elements supported by the standard WordPress editor: text, images and even videos using embedded code snippets. If you’ve ever created a page or post on WordPress, you’ll be able to publish lessons in the same way.
Video lessons showcase a large player that fills almost the entire screen. Yes, you can add standard content, but it appears below the featured video as supporting content.
Tutor LMS does not currently support audio lessons, unless you embed an audio player into a standard lesson. However, the developers have said they are considering adding audio features in future updates.
There is no built-in feature for additional lesson resources, but files can be added to lessons with a Course Attachments add-on, which is only available on paid versions of Tutor LMS.
04. Protecting Non-Course Content (Membership Features)
Unlike most LMS plugins, Thrive Apprentice allows you to protect and grant access to both online courses AND any other content on your website. This includes blog posts, pages, category pages, guides, premium resources, or exclusive videos.
Better yet, you can bundle and sell access to online courses and content together, allowing you to build membership sites or hybrid online course and membership site businesses. This opens up HUGE possibilities for your online business growth and revenue.
LearnDash can protect WordPress non-course content as part of its Groups feature.
This allows you to offer access to combinations of courses and WordPress posts/pages as part of a membership model.
LifterLMS allows you to protect and sell access to pages, posts and other WordPress content through a system known as Memberships.
Like Thrive Apprentice’s Products, LifterLMS Memberships are a top-level ‘container’ that can include any combination of online courses and WordPress content, essentially offering a membership solution. Memberships can be sold on a recurring subscription model, or as a single purchase, along with a host of other options (like trials and drip) via LifterLMS’s Access Plan feature.
Tutor LMS cannot protect non-course content (pages, posts, categories, etc.) without additional 3rd party membership plugins.
Other LMS Plugins
Visual Design & Customization
The best LMS plugins in 2023 understand that students demand a professional and visually enjoyable learning experience. Remember, your students are not just buying an online course, they’re investing financially and emotionally into the promise of real results... and your course needs to communicate this value with a professional brand and design.
So how do the top WordPress LMS plugins stack up in terms of design templates, customization and advanced features? Let’s find out...
01. Ready-Made Design Templates
Thrive Apprentice comes with professionally designed templates for all the important pages of your online course:
- School homepage
- Course overview
- Module overview
- Lessons (text, video and audio)
- Login and registration pages
- Course completion page
Each of these templates are ready to use from the start – you can simply add your course content and you’ll already have a professional and branded online school, but you’re also free to customize them in any way you want to match your audience, content and personality.
You can also add pre-designed elements to your templates, such as lesson resources, buttons, progress bar indicators and more.
LearnDash includes Starter Templates that are specially designed for different niches... digital marketing, yoga, cooking, health coaching etc.
At first, this feels like a great feature for users just getting started creating online courses.
These Starter Templates are not offered by LearnDash, but by 3rd party partners (such as Astra and Kadence). This wouldn’t be an issue with a proper disclaimer and data sharing terms, but none of this is made clear during the template selection process, making it feel like a marketing campaign to promote 3rd party brands to LearnDash users.
Furthermore, it’s not clear who offers support for these templates: LearnDash, or Astra/Kadence?
So, does LearnDash offer ready-made design templates?
It’s a tricky question to answer!
These templates are available as part of LearnDash, and they are made specifically to work well with LearnDash courses, but the fact remains they are designed and provided by 3rd party for-profit companies.
With those facts in hand, we’ll let you decide how to answer that one.
While LifterLMS is very capable from a technical standpoint, it is very lacking in terms of design and template customization, especially for the average non-techy user.
LifterLMS does not come with ready-made design school, course or lesson templates, instead using your existing WordPress theme. This often causes incompatibility issues, illustrated here where LifterLMS throws up warnings with even the default WordPress theme, Twenty Twenty-Two.
LifterLMS instead wants you to use their specially designed LaunchPad theme. There are some other 3rd party themes that work well with LifterLMS, but this still greatly limits your choices and requires a full site migration if you already have an existing website using an unsupported WordPress theme.
Tutor LMS does not include ready-made templates for your school, courses or lessons.
However... it does come with an optional, free theme called TutorStarter, which is specially designed to show off your Tutor LMS courses in a clean, professional way. As the name suggests, this is more a starting canvas with which to customize later.
02. Full Visual Editing
Thrive Apprentice includes the Thrive Visual Editor, a powerful what-you-see-is-what-you-publish tool that lets you build the exact layout and content designs your course needs.
Columns, interactive toggles and tabs, buttons, content boxes, icons... they’re all easy to add to your course templates or lesson content without any coding or design skills. This means you can quickly add rich media on specific lessons, or embed a video on your module pages.
The Thrive Visual Editor does a great job of letting you customize your live website, instead of hiding away the finished result under layers of abstraction. Everything you build looks and feels exactly like what your students will see as they navigate through your courses.
LearnDash does not currently feature visual editing.
(You can re-organise your course structure by dragging-and-dropping lessons and modules, but this belongs more in the course creation tools above, and should not be confused with visually editing templates.)
Some visual editing is possible to their premium starter templates, but only if you purchase their more expensive hosted cloud service, NOT their standalone WordPress plugin. So to keep comparisons fair between WordPress LMS plugins, we’ll have to say that the LearnDash plugin does not allow you to easily visually customize your lesson, module, course, or school templates beyond basic branding and content options.
LifterLMS does not support visual editing of school, course or lesson templates.
Tutor LMS does not support visual editing of school, course or lesson templates, without additional, paid 3rd party tools.
Any changes to the actual page templates related to your courses requires custom theme development.
03. Sidebar Customization
Given the organized structure of online courses, it’s important that LMS plugins offer intuitive navigation tools to help students find their way around the syllabus. One mainstay of this is a course sidebar.
Thrive Apprentice lets you completely customize your sidebar to include teacher information, a progress indicator bar, your course title, interactive toggles for modules and chapters, and links to each lesson... including icons to show students which lessons have been completed!
LearnDash sidebars are customized using the WordPress widgets feature, if your current theme supports them.
If your WordPress theme does support sidebars, and allows you to add widgets, then LearnDash comes with a number of easy to add widget design options:
- Course information
- Progress bar
- Course navigation menu
As with all WordPress widgets, customization is limited by the options allowed by the developer. If you want to change something not offered (e.g. the animation speed of the progress bar), you’ll need to pay for custom development to do so.
LifterLMS lets you customize your sidebar by adding WordPress widgets to either the Course Sidebar or the Lesson Sidebar.
Tutor LMS does not currently support sidebar customization for your course or lessons.
You can make some changes to the filter options that appear in the course grid sidebar, but this is generally limited to toggling them on or off.
04. Conditional & Dynamic Content
This is a feature that really makes Thrive Apprentice stand apart from other LMS plugins...
Conditional Display lets you show entirely different content on the same page to different people, simply based on their status as a visitor, logged-in subscriber or paying customer.
This lets you show the right course or membership offer to the right person at the right time, helping to convert more of your visitors into subscribers, and more of your subscribers into paying customers.
Thrive Apprentice also allows you to show different labels on your courses depending on their status... so customers will see a ‘Not Started Yet’ or ‘In Progress’ button that takes them to the start or most recent uncompleted lesson in a course, while people without access with see a ‘Members Only’ or ‘Buy Now’ button that takes them to a sales page.
Thrive Apprentice includes many other conditional and dynamic design elements, such as buttons that only allow confirmed graduates to access their course completion page, or download their completion certificates.
LearnDash does not currently offer conditional display features.
LifterLMS does not currently offer conditional display features.
Tutor LMS does not currently offer conditional display features.
05. School Branding
Thrive Apprentice lets you customize your online school either in line with, or completely separate from, the rest of your WordPress theme design. This means you can choose a separate online school logo and color scheme if you so desire to let your students know they’re in the right place on your site to learn.
This approach has the added advantage of letting you build a professional online school that works in parallel to any WordPress theme your business needs... Thrive Apprentice doesn’t take over your current theme or force you to inherit styles from elsewhere on your website.
Thrive Apprentice also gives you the choice of adding a custom header, so your school area can feature an entirely different navigation menu that’s better suited to your students’ needs.
LearnDash creates courses as part of your existing WordPress theme, inheriting your standard header and footer, so does not currently support separate school branding.
LifterLMS creates courses as part of your existing WordPress theme, inheriting your standard header and footer, so does not currently support separate school branding.
Tutor LMS creates courses as part of your existing WordPress theme, inheriting your standard header and footer, so does not currently support separate school branding.
Other LMS Plugins
Course & Lesson DRIP Features
By unlocking modules and lessons at just the right time for your students, you can keep them motivated, reduce information overwhelm, and ultimately improve course completion rates. Drip is an essential feature for any serious WordPress LMS plugin in 2023.
But which of these LMS plugins offer the best drip features? And what tools are available to easily schedule lesson unlocking for BOTH individuals and entire cohort intakes?
01. Drip Unlock Options
The key to great drip functionality is flexibility... the ability to unlock lessons based on criteria that make sense for your courses, students and business. This is where Thrive Apprentice really shines!
Thrive Apprentice’s Drip feature offers the following content unlock options:
- Evergreen Repeating - e.g. Unlock content at consistent intervals for each individual student.
- Schedule Repeating - e.g. Unlock content at consistent intervals after a scheduled start date.
- Day of the Week or Month - e.g. Unlock a new module every first Monday of the month.
- Specific Dates - e.g. Unlock a new lesson on the 10th, 17th and 24th of July then skip 1 week for implementation then continue on the 7th of August.
- Thrive Automator Triggers - e.g. When a tag gets added to a subscriber and a webhook is received from your email marketing service, unlock a new lesson.
- Thrive Quiz Builder Results - e.g. Only unlock the next course lesson or module if your students get an 80% or higher on a quiz.
These drip unlock conditions can be applied to any lesson in your course, and can be mixed and matched to create a powerful path for your students’ learning.
LearnDash supports dripped lessons based on specific dates, or a number of days after a student enrolls.
LifterLMS supports dripped lessons based on specific dates, or a number of days after a student enrolls.
Tutor LMS includes a Content Drip add-on that allows course creators to unlock lessons, quizzes, and assignments based on certain criteria.
- Unlock lessons on specific dates
- Unlock lessons after a number of days since enrollment
- Unlock lessons after prerequisites are met (lessons, quizzes or assignments)
02. Cohort Based Courses & Group Learning
Sometimes, course creators want a group of students to progress through modules and lessons at the same time based on when they started as a cohort. Traditionally, many LMS plugins have tried to achieve this by forcing you to duplicate entire courses to run in parallel.
Thrive Apprentice achieves cohort learning in a much simpler and flexible way, with Decoupled Drip. Decoupled Drip lets you create as many drip schedules as you like for the same course.
This is a game changing LMS feature for cohort based courses, as you can give different intakes of students access to lessons and modules without negatively affecting anyone else at a different stage in their drip schedule.
LearnDash approaches cohort-based learning differently using their Groups feature.
Groups allow course creators to provide access to any mix of courses and WordPress content, and even assign a group leader to guide the class through the syllabus.