There is an old Irish yarn about a foreigner driving round the country lanes completely lost. At the next village he stops his car, winds down the window, and calls out to an old man sitting on a bench. “Please Sir”, the stranger enquires, “which is the best way to Donegal?”. The old man smiles, thinks for a moment, and replies, “Now if I were going there, I wouldn’t be starting from here”.
This story has parallels with many a WordPress development project. Client wants X, you build X as quickly and efficiently as possible. X is successful, the client wants more, you add Y, and then Z, and…. After a while you look back and either marvel at or regret your early design decisions. Pippin Williamson wrote about this in his recent post.
I found myself in this situation recently with a Learning Management System project. I was delighted to discover that my early decisions to use LearnDash and Gravity Forms have, by accident, so far, been spot on.
Client wants to train a geographically dispersed membership base
Our client is a state sporting body with 31,000 athletes in 300 clubs spread over 800,000 square kms, administered through 12 Area organisations. They rely heavily on a few thousand volunteers to operate, most of whom are either parents, grandparents, coaches and / or former athletes. In common with many similar organisations, knowledge management and succession planning is a major challenge.
Easily accessible online training was prioritised as part of the solution. This was to be targeted at time-poor parents in their 30s and 40s.
LearnDash LMS to the rescue
There is a bewildering array of Learning Management Systems (LMS) to choose between. Most corporate solutions were unattractive because they were based on per-user pricing and required a list of students to be provided before access is granted. In WordPress-land Sensei and LearnDash were on our shortlist.
Although we already had a license for Sensei, we opted for LearnDash and have never regretted that decision. Key for us was their focus on the needs of educators, including a deep quiz solution, certificates, and reporting. Their quality support forum, run by Justin and Kloé Ferriman, also gave comfort that these guys know their stuff are people to be trusted.
Might as well throw in Gravity Forms as well!
Remember I said easily accessible?
We’re dealing with busy volunteers. Minimising hurdles is key. There is no charge for training. Whether to require user registration at all was debated. We ultimately decided that basic user registration would be required so we knew who was in the tent.
How many of my members are using it?
The soft launch went well. A few niggles were identified and solved. The hard launch came and then woosh, suddenly several members per day were registering. Initially we were reporting registration numbers manually to the client. Then the inevitable question came – is there a live report on the site that we can easily refer to?
LearnDash has a ‘ProPanel’ reporting extension. Whilst this did exactly what it said on the tin, it required the client to login and perform a few keystrokes to extract the KPI of maximum interest. Remember I said easily accessible?
To be fair, every WordPress plugin that I have ever used suffers from the same issue. This is why we designed GFChart (cue shameless promotion for our own product)! GFChart is a quick to configure reporting system for data collected through Gravity Forms. Because it works out of the box without coding it can quickly and inexpensively implemented. It has counting and charting capability which allows client dashboards to be built in minutes not days </end shameless promotion>.
By stripping out any sensitive information, it is displayed on a publicly accessible page that can be quickly viewed without logging in.
Boom! Reporting delivered (check it out here).
Now can we convert the certificate into the full assessment documentation?
LearnDash has a fantastic system for delivering personalised certificates to successful students via pdf file download. Whilst these looked great, at the practical exam the assessors were expecting the full multi-page assessment documentation. This includes detailed marking matrices and registration forms. Great as the LearnDash certificate solution is, its pdf renderer struggles to cope with anything other than basic html. Cue Gravity PDF.
Gravity PDF, from Blue Liquid Designs, is just totally awesome. It allows information captured via Gravity Forms to be packaged into a fully customised pdf document made available via download or email. It also includes impressive restriction controls. Out of the box it is not immediately clear how to configure but their few short videos very quickly guide you through the easy configuration steps. A new v4.0 is in the pipeline that will be based around a friendly user interface rather than ultra-basic php/html coding. (They must increase their pricing).
The trickiest bit was modifying LearnDash to use the new certificates rather than the old. (Justin please, pretty please, can we have a hook/filter to amend the certificate url?!) We dug into ld-certificates.php line 147 and inserted some new code.
Boom! Full documentation delivered (check out example here).
And… each Area manager wants visibility
The challenge in all multi-layer organisations is how to drive rapid progress at the grass roots, from the centre, with appropriate involvement of those in between.
As the popularity of online training spread, Area Managers needed granular visibility of activity in their local area. Remember I said easily accessible?
We opted for a simple email alert. Cue Gravity Flow.
Gravity Flow is a super-impressive workflow automation tool. It allows manual processes, in this case the notification and arrangement of practical assessments, to be automated based around Gravity Forms. It’s founder Stephen Henty has a formidable Gravity Forms pedigree and is definitely someone to watch for the future.
We started to design the processes, but realised that we were over complicating matters. We have opted to use the powerful notifications feature already embedded in Gravity Forms, for now.
Within only 3 months of launch, one third of clubs now have members using the system. This success has so far been built on one simple online course. The client is now asking for more courses. I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before the reporting and workflows require further attention.
Different courses require different skill sets and therefore more complex workflow based on conditional choices. Thank goodness for Gravity Flow!
For reporting our next step will be the introduction of a simple candidate database, easy to filter and search. Cue Gravity View!
Gravity View is the powerful defacto choice for displaying Gravity Forms entries on the front end. We already make extensive use of it in other projects due to its power in quickly implementing simple solutions that users love. Where personal data is exposed, it will require login.
So that you have the full picture let me mention some other key ingredients:
- Theme My Login plugin for a permissions based login interface and routing rules. (Note since we opted for this, LearnDash Toolkit has been launched which probably delivers similar and more).
- Customised php code to update the Gravity Forms database when LearnDash courses are registered, and passed; action triggers for Gravity Forms notifications; and modifications to the WordPress admin bar. Gravity Forms and LearnDash have all the necessary hooks / filters and APIs, except for modifying the certificate url as discussed above.
- Although we didn’t use it in the end, Zapier integration was seriously considered as a quick and simple solution for the extra requests.
LearnDash Gravity Forms integration conclusions
At the time of writing we’re less than a year into this project, and who knows how / if it will progress from here. Experience thus far is:
- LearnDash has delivered. In particular their extensive documentation and active community forum enabled us to build the entire solution without need of the ticket support system. During our project lifetime they have launched enhancements that delivered immediate value (e.g. A4 rather than US ‘letter’ formatting) and have an active development roadmap.
- Gravity Forms has, once again, proved that it is far more than just a forms builder. The family of independent extensions around it, combined with its own hooks/filters and APIs, makes it a powerful, flexible and extendable data management solution.
P.S. why no Learning Record System?
You might be wondering why we have not implemented an Learning Record System (LRS). Our initial investigations suggested that this would be a big pill to swallow without necessarily delivering the immediate functions required by the client.
Maybe one day we will stop our car, wind down our window and ask someone whom we presume to be more knowledgeable….
Full disclosure: Ben Ramsden is the proprietor of GFChart. Links to Gravity Forms and Gravity Flow on this page are affiliated.