Self-Hosting my online courses: How it all went seriously wrong

Do you want to self-host your courses?  Nobody likes the idea of paying monthly fees and percentage of sales to some third party who will hold your courses for you and dictate their rules.

You’ve been telling me that using a platform like Teachable, Thinkific or even Udemy might be an easy start, but in the long-term pretty much every ecourse creator I know wants to self-host.  Own your precious school.   Cut out the middleman and his hefty fees.  Have FULL control over design and functionality.

So I made it a point to find the right solution that I can share with you.

And it wasn’t pretty.

I looked through some 50 odd WordPress plugins – some free, some paid, and some ridiculous rip-offs.  Many looked fine and charming until I started integrating them with all the rest of the stuff – e-mail marketing systems, memberships, payment processors, group discussions, affiliate programmes.  My head’s still spinning.

I knew that plugins created by different teams can be allergic to each other, so I thought I was being incredibly smart ass wise owl to go with Sensei.

Let me tell you why.

Sensei is a learning management (i.e. course creation) plugin that is maintained by the same people who own almighty WordPress itself.

What could possibly go wrong?..

Sensei doesn’t have a built-in payment processor.  In other words, you can create courses, but not charge for them. To do that you need Woocommerce.  The most popular shopping cart plugin in the world used by more than 50% of all online shops.

Now here is the great news.

Woocommerce is also maintained by the same people who own WordPress.

WordPress, Woocommerce and Sensei are all part of the same shop.

Sweet!  So far so good.  I felt safe.

But Sensei and Woocommerce by themselves didn’t give me all the functionality I needed.  I also wanted to charge monthly fees for ongoing support and coaching, and for that I would need a membership and subscriptions plugin.  Guess what?  The same company offers those, too.  So we’re still using plugins owned by the same people.

I also wanted to have ability to drip my content, use social login, and a bunch of other cool stuff.  OK, I admit it, I went bananas with my setup.  But all of it was available from the same shop!  Does it get any better than this?

I was very proud of myself.  The learning curve was a royal pain, but the dream of self-hosting kept me going.

My confidence started shrinking when plugins refused to cooperate and started generating errors and unexpected results.

Really?

If I can’t trust WordPress experts and plugins they make to work seamlessly with each other, who can I trust?

That smug smile on my face when I thought I had it all figured out was quickly turning into a panicking grimace.

The final straw that broke my owl back was updating Woocommerce plugin to its latest version only to find my wonderful academy burning to the ground.

FATAL ERROR.  SITE INACCESSIBLE.

My heart sank.

I spent nearly three months on this. Don’t you crash on me now!

Lisa, why didn’t I listen to you? I mentioned before that I love Lisa Irby’s blog to bits. And Lisa recently wrote about her experience with self-hosting her courses, describing very similar issues (though she used different plugins).

I was that close to throwing in the towel and begging Teachable to take me back.

But forever optimist, I decided to give it one final chance.  I knew I had to let go of some functionality.  I had to simplify my setup and prioritise the vital wheat over the nice-to-have chaff.

And keeping all my fingers and feathers crossed,  I’m working on a solution that I intend to present to the world… unless it’s wiped out by another digital tsunami of plugin updates.

And then it would be Teachable.

Over to you now: Are you keen on self-hosting your courses? Or do you prefer to use a school-hosting platform? Does my experience scare you? Let me know in the comments.

 

Leave a Reply 13 comments

Alla Reply

Nata, hi
I have just decided to go for self-hosting because I don’t plan to launch a big course as my first course but a series of mini-courses/workshops (open-end dates with access valid for 1 year). LMS component is the most important part for me. I don’t need monthly membership, affiliate program or discussion forum. I just need well organised online course. I will use FB private group for support, discussions and FB live Q&A. I also plan to have some digital products for selling – download pdf files.

What do you think about this set-up: WP Courseware + MailChimp + WooCommerce?

I am a little confused about the need to have also Membership plugin to protect the content. Do I need it (I’ve read positive feedback about WP Courseware + MemberPress combination) if I plan to host only mini-courses? How does it work: will students have access only to the mini-course they have purchased and not other courses hosted on the platform or should I use membership plugin to manage access?

Another question: where do I set up the WP Courseware plugin – on the main website or subdomain? Would it be possible/difficult to set up sales pages for each of the mini-course (with Thrive Architect) without confusion?

    Nata Reply

    Hi Alla, I generally do not recommend self-hosting to people who aren’t hard core techies (and even to them, if they want to focus on running a business!). I’ve gone down this route, and frankly regret it every day. It’s been a HUGE distraction from the activities that are core to my business – creating courses and content for my subscribers. You might discover that you will spend much more money hiring someone for tech setup and continuous support (which you will need – have no doubt about it) than if you invested in the highest tier of a platform like Teachable or Thinkific. And much more headache.

    If you’re set on self-hosting, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what the best set up for you might be without knowing your unique business demands and situation with your courses. There are many different solutions out there, and what works for one may not work for another. A mini-course vs. a long course really isn’t the deciding factor, because the length of the course doesn’t have that much impact on the functionality / tech setup.

    This may not be the answer you were hoping for, but there aren’t simple answers here, I’m afraid.

      Alla Reply

      Nata, thank you for the answer – yes, I noticed that there is no single answer and that people change their opinion along the way towards one option or another and make decisions against what everybody else says and don’t follow their own advice..

Valentina Bellicova Reply

I feel for you Nata. I’m still in the process of creating my course … yup, went back to square one. In the meantime I took on three pre-beta clients to help them set up their own online courses. When it came time to hosting their courses, I wimped out, spoke to my colleague and friend who puts up sites including membership sites as a living, and asked for her advice. She gave me three options, I chose the premium with an annual fee of $99. MemberPress. It may not be the best one – who knows? What I liked about it was the full suite of tutorials and the absolutely SUPER customer support. So far happy clients, with no issues. I’m sold!

    Nata Reply

    What happened to your course?? I’m very happy you found someone to support you through this. Do you mind sharing her contacts? I’m getting fed up with doing my own tech support. Could use some help. And I’m using Member Press, too.

Alla Reply

Also, just found an article by LearnDash on their recent feature to facilitate integration with MemberPress plus comments from MemberPress founder ”We already have many customers that are using LearnDash in conjunction with MemberPress but this add-on will make things much easier for them and will really open up the possibilities for everyone to make use of this powerful integration.” https://www.learndash.com/use-learndash-with-memberpress/ while in the previous article someone was also happy about Sensei+MemberPress solution.

    Nata Reply

    Alla, as always, you’re such a fountain of wisdom! 🙂 It all comes down to priorities and what you want to achieve. If you’re just hosting courses on your website, perhaps LMS like LearnDash is all you need. You might not even need Memberpress because LearnDash protects your content and has built-in payment processing so it’s an all-in-one solution. The reason I didn’t go down that way is because I wanted to incorporate student discussion areas on my site, so BuddyPress integration was hugely important to me. Also, LearnDash did not have a direct integration with ConvertKit. If you’re not planning to host course discussions and use FB groups or Slack for this, LearnDash might be all you need.

      Alla Reply

      Nata,
      did you try LearnDash or have students using it – any useful feedback? Actually, LearnDash might be a good option for me as well – it’s more advanced than WP Courseware (although they have just announced their growth and new feature development plans) and, as you mentioned, it’s all-in-one solution. Richer course experience is an absolute priority for me vs students discussions on my site. I want to use private FB group for this intentionally.
      Question on the space for discuddions: why it’s so important for you to have them on your website vs other platforms (e.g. Facebook)? Will you also have livestreaming option within your website area? I guess, nowadays live Q&A sessions is becoming a must-have feature of the modern online course offering ongoing support. Therefore, having a platform that combines discussion, chat and video live streaming sounds quite practical.
      e.g. when I took your course (offered on Teachable)I enjoyed using FB group for discussions. Besides, everyone (or almost) have practical experience in being part of at least one FB group. From my personal active learner’s perspective it is very important to take a small break after each lesson for: completeing an assignment, taking action, reflection, doing further research. So, I take a break from a course platform anyway & later moving to FB (where I am present anyway) is no problem for me (I even prefer it). All experience that I have got so far with inside course platform discussions didn’t offer any added value. Did you have a chance to survey other students on this issue?

        Nata Reply

        Unfortunately, I had to abandon the idea of having discussions on my website. I’ve been getting lots of tech issues with that setup. The idea was simply to have everything in one place – both materials and group interactions.

        I have decided against using an LMS (not specifically LearnDash, but any other) because it’s not as flexible as membership site, and I need that flexibility for marketing purposes. I’m thinking of doing a post and demo about it – stay tuned.

Alla Reply

Nata, did you consider integration of MemberPress with an online course/LMS plugin to avoid creating pages/structure for e-course manually? Does this require coding? I recently came across one article+comments that highlight 3 plugins for ecourses to integrate with MemberPress: LearnDash, WP Courseware and Sensei. What do you think about this option? Here is the link to the article https://www.memberpress.com/learndash-memberpress-integration/

    Nata Reply

    Alla, I ultimately decided against that. LMS plugins and Memberpress both have certain processes for protecting course info and enrolling students, and there is a danger that they might clash and cause errors. I initially used Sensei and Woo Memeberships – both plugins from the same company, and they produced errors! I have little hope that plugins produced by different teams will work seamlessly with each other. When I looked at the functionality I want, BuddyPress was far more important to me, because I want to create student discussion areas on my website instead of using FB groups. LMS functionality is far less important. I can easily create a course structure using WordPress native menus, and I never use quizzes anyway. Ideally, I’d like to have LMS functionality, but the monster I initially created was so complicated that sadly LMS had to go.

Valentina Bellicova Reply

Oh Nata!

I do so feel for you. I am at that point right now … with a student and with myself!!!! It is not a pretty picture. When you were checking out the different membership options/plugins etc. did you look at MemberPress? After going through gazilions of options, perhaps even as many as you (but I’m sure gazilions is a lot more than 50) and sitting in on webinars etc. I chose MemberPress … SIMPLE, EASY, YADA YADA YADA! SET IT UP IN 5 MINUTES! Or so the promo said. Maybe. But if one is even less of a techie than one wise owl, those 5 minutes have turned to hours and hours (tutorials, tutorials, tutorials).

But your EPIC course sounds intriguing. I thought the one you currently have already is. 🙂

    Nata Reply

    OK, you got me. It IS MemberPress that I ended up using. I wanted to keep the intrigue until the next post. But you see right through me. 🙂 MemberPress is actually relatively straightforward, once you understand its logic. What’s good is that one plugin does everything. My combination of Sensei + Woocommerce + WooMemberships + WooSubscriptions was driving me insane. But I had to let go of the learning management component. Essentially memberpress protects your content, but it doesn’t create courses per se. I manually organise my pages to create a structure that looks like a course curriculum.

    And no, I’m not working on an epic course, my epic project is the self-hosted academy. Sorry for confusing you.

Leave a Reply: