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Is LMS a new market for WordPress themes?

I occasionally peruse Themeforest to see what new offerings they had available and I’ve been surprised by the number of education offerings, in particular LMS imitator themes, have popped up over the last year. In fact, they’ve gone ahead and created an entire Education category for all the WordPress themes that are now available. To be the point a bit, two new LMS themes have become available just since August. One that went live at the beginning of September is titled “LMS | Responsive Learning Management System” and is designed by an incredibly popular author on Themeforest, designthemes.

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LMS | Responsive Learning Management System. themeforest.com

The second recent theme is one called Clever Course and launched on August 21.

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Clever Course. themeforest.com

Both themes seem to be focused on companies who want to offer suites of courses that end-users can purchase, but I’m interested to know how and if they are being used by instructors in higher ed and if anyone is using them in conjunction/as a replacement to the tool the institution is providing. Particularly Clever Course seems to be more focused on the instructor AND student experience. You can looks at screenshots of both the instructor and student backends here and here. The other integrates Sensei, a WooThemes plugin, which I’ve seen integrated in other themes as well. Sensei has been on the market for almost two years now and I still have yet to hear too much chatter about it.

But the majority of LMS theme sales seemed to be tied to two specific products: WPLMS (which Clever Course’s UX seems to be stealing a trick or two from) and Academy, which I’ve actually used before (more on that below). These two have nearly 7,000 purchases combined. Total, there are five WordPress themes of ThemesForest that are focused on mimicking an LMS and have 7,931 purchases combined. Is online for-profit education really that lucrative of a market that end-users have spent nearly $500K purchasing these themes? I have serious doubts. I can’t imagine that it’s anywhere close to 100%, and one would have to think a significant portion of those sales are direct to instructor.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the open web is becoming incredibly easier for anybody control. WordPress, specifically, has made some incredible strides in the last couple years and the more developers focus on drag-and-drop tools, the easier it becomes to create an entirely customized experience in mere minutes (particularly if you are using web hosting similar to OU Create or Reclaim Hosting which has lightning fast one-click application installs). So that being said, its theoretically possible, now more than ever, for instructors to build and take ownership of their own custom LMS space as long assuming you’re willing to give up some of the benefits of the institution supported system such as single sign on and dedicated tech support. For instance, in Spring 2013, I worked with a professor who wanted to offer a MOOC version of his Introduction to Management course. We used the Academy theme. With all open tools, we were able to replicate the majority of the functionality edX had at the time (you can still play with the site which has now been shut down on my subdomain http://management.adamcroom.com).

OU introduction to Management MOOC. Summer 2013.

OU introduction to Management MOOC. Summer 2013.

I need to be explicit that I’m not advocating for every instructor to take this approach, rather just that it seems easier to do and web developers are taking notice of the growing market and building low-cost products to sell directly to instructors. I should also note that for security purposes, students who took Intro to Management for college credit still used the institutional LMS for quizzes and assignment submissions, so it’s doesn’t have to be an “either-or” deal BUT the theme did give us enough tools to do some basic assessment and the ability to customize to the functionality we needed, such as the bbPress WordPress plugin, to create a forum space. While the open course design wasn’t anything to necessarily write home about, the platform did meet the needs of the instructor and aesthetically exceeded his expectations. So this all leads me to a few questions:

  1. Are any instructors using themes that are geared towards mirroring LMS functionality as a supplement or replacement to the institutional LMS?
  2. If not, why? Access to web space? Security? Time constraints?
  3. Has any institution adopted any process that discourages the use of these tools?
  4. Does anyone else have experience with these kind of themes? I would love opinions on theme or access to see what you have created with them. What’s an instructors or students point of view of the tradeoffs to moving to a WordPress LMS imitator?
  5. These themes seem to be doing pretty well on Themeforest. Seriously…Who are these 7,000 people and how we can start chatting?

Top image is a creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by lecercle: http://flickr.com/photos/lecercle/466799202

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  • Thanks for this, Adam! Did you see Jonathan Rees’s recent post on Be Your Own LMS? I loved it:
    http://moreorlessbunk.net/technology/as-the-learning-management-system-turns/
    For years, I’ve used only the LMS Gradebook, along with quizzes that allow students to record their points in the Gradebook (so, not quizzes as tests at all – just as way to give students access to the Gradebook). Because I value open networking both within my classes and between my classes, the closed LMS is a dead end for me. It offers me nothing of use.
    I didn’t have create.ou.edu when I needed to get students publishing online (I started in 2002), but both Google Sites and Blogger are working great for me. I’ve used other blogging and other web publishing tools at other times; what really matters, it seems to me, is the course design — there are always lots of tools to choose from (thank goodness). I especially like the fact that the students own their Google Sites and own their blogs. It’s a good learning experience that way, and I also think it is really motivating for students to have their own website, their own blog, etc. Each person has their own design sense and they go with that; it makes the class so much more interesting that way! (As opposed to the mind-numbing monotony of the LMS.)
    For me, Inoreader is the glue that holds it together, providing syndication and aggregation for the students’ blogs. As long as the student’s blog has full RSS and allows comments, that’s fine by me! I just need the blog feed and blog comment feed, and I’m ready to go!
    I’m documenting my experiences here:
    http://anatomy.lauragibbs.net/
    I sure do wish all faculty were documenting their tool use, LMS or otherwise, in public spaces. Just imagine how much we could all learn from each other that way!
    Thanks for the post!
    • Adam
      Thanks Laura. I understand your thoughtful approach but I’m still compelled by the fact that there 7,000+ people out there that have, for one reason or another, purchased an out-of-the-box LMS that they control and sits on top of an open source CMS. While course design is obviously numero uno, I think there’s also incredible value in making open easy. These tools get people headed in the direction.
  • Yep, there are thousands of people using Google Apps for Education, thousands of people using WordPress solutions, etc. All kinds of people have fled the LMS (understandably…), using all kinds of solutions. I’ve found using hosted options to be the easiest option since, until now, OU had no interest in supporting people who were working outside the LMS. Since I have zero time to spend on the technology per se, using hosted solutions has worked great. I’ll be curious to hear what features you find here that go beyond what it’s possible to do with hosted tools that don’t require any set-up at all. One of the reasons I try so hard to document what I do is so that other people can learn from the things I’ve figured out by trial and error. It will be great if you can build up a group of WordPress users here at OU sharing ideas; even if people are using different tools, there’s a lot of course design ideas that cross over easily – blogging is still blogging after all. :-)
  • Adam
    Yep you’re right on the money! GAFE is actually a good equivalent for what I’m talking about. I’m assuming the Google Classroom will be one of the tipping points for people moving to GAFE since that is offered exclusively to schools with it where other products are not. Similarly, these LMS themes may be something that move people over to WordPress–who knows!

    And I sincerely appreciate all the documentation on your part. I take a lot away from it!

    • Jonah Duckles and I had a good back-and-forth about GAFE yesterday at Twitter; it sounds like he would be a fan. From Carl Grant, though, I got the impression that GAFE will never come to OU. Hmmm. But it sure would make my life easier – not so much because of Google Classroom, but by promoting awareness amongst students and faculty of tools like Blogger, Google Sites, Google Forms, etc. I don’t know how I would teach without them! :-)
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