How to generate passive income building your own e‑learning site in WordPress

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August 28, 2014
How to generate passive income building your own e-learning site in WordPress.

thumbnailHave you ever considered running your own class or training course online? Everyone has something they can teach and many people are amazed when they see how easy it is to turn that knowledge into passive income. 

Before you can start however, you’ll need a website that allows people to sign up and take your lessons. The good news is developing a website like this is nowhere near as hard as many people think.

In this article, I’ll explain how to build a killer membership site and e‑learning system with WordPress, quickly and cheaply.

Membership plugins

Most e‑learning platforms provide a way of restricting access to enrolled students. To replicate this with WordPress, you need a membership plugin that allows users to register, pay (optionally) and grant/​restrict access to the relevant courses and support areas.

You may also want to drip content so that new users can’t download everything right away and then demand a refund.

Choosing a membership plugin for WordPress is not easy. There’s a lot of them and it’s very difficult to find good reviews from unbiased authors.

Luckily, I came across Chris Lema — a leading expert on a number of WordPress-related topics — including Membership plugins.

You could spend hours reading Chris’s posts on the subject of membership plugins but to make a very long story short, I chose MemberPress ($99).

MemberPress accepts payments from my two favorite payment providers (Stripe and PayPal), it drips content, and it integrates with other important systems that I’ll talk about next. 

It even creates your sales pages for you automatically.

If you’d prefer a free option, try Paid Membership Pro and if you need more payment options then the subscription extension for WooCommerce is another good option that connects with just about every payment processor available.

Learning management plugins

The next thing you’ll need is a system for directing and tracking the users’ progress through lessons, as well as forcing them to pass quizzes etc.

There are 4 leading WordPress plugins that provide this type of functionality:

  • WP Courseware ($67)
  • Sensei by Woo Themes ($129)
  • LeanDash ($99)
  • TrainUp! (£45)

Chris Lema has done a lot of writing about e‑learning plugins too, and there’s not much separating them from what I can tell.

I choose WP Courseware because it integrates with MemberPress and has a nice drag-and-drop interface for rearranging lessons. 

I don’t use quizzes or assignment submissions so I went with WPCourseware because it’s simple. If you need Scorm or Tin Can support then LearnDash might be the better option.

With WP Courseware, users can see which lessons they have completed by the green check marks, and can be prevented from accessing a lesson until the previous lesson is marked as complete.

Discussion forums

Next you’re going to need a way of allowing users to ask questions, and of providing support in a way that scales.

Email is not always the best solution because you could end up answering the same questions over and over. 

You could use an enterprise-level support solution like ZenDesk, which integrates easily with WordPress, but a better solution for virtual classrooms — in my experience — is a discussion forum.

The BBPress plugin is free and can be integrated easily with your existing design in just a few clicks. This post by WordPress developer Pippin Williamson contains useful additional plugins that can be added to super-charge your forums and manage them better.

Social interaction

An important aspect of any classroom is the social interaction amongst learners, and between learners and their teacher. This is also the hardest thing to replicate with distance learning but that’s not to say it can’t be done.

BuddyPress is a free plugin that allows you to offer social networking to your users with an interface they’ll be familiar with from Facebook and Twitter.

Users can create groups, make friends, share thoughts publicly with other members, comment on other people’s updates, send private messages and enjoy all the benefits of social interaction they’d get in a real classroom.

With a little modification, BuddyPress can also be configured to display a users progress with all activity output on their stream, allowing tutors to instantly see exactly how each learner is getting on and post comments or begin informal conversations.

Automated emails

One of the problems with e‑learning is that it’s very easy for learners to slack off and forget to carry out lessons when they’re supposed to.

Another one of the big advantages with WordPress is that it integrates easily with all the leading email systems used by professional digital marketers. That means you can write a bunch of emails in advance and have them sent out automatically to build relationships with your learners and encourage them stay on top of the work schedule. 

Paid options for this include MailChimp and Aweber but I prefer MailPoet, which is a free plugin that allows you to create and manage your emails directly from within WordPress.

MailPoet allows you to design beautiful emails from inside WordPress that can be sent out to users automatically at preset times: hours, days, weeks, or months after registration.

An affiliate program

If you choose to build your new e‑learning platform with WordPress, then that also means you’ll have access to all the powerful tools and strategies that are so popular with people who specialize in Internet marketing.

One such tool is the affiliate program which allows you to pay commissions to anyone online who refers you paying customers.

There are popular third-party affiliate systems like ShareASale that will allow you to setup a program off-site, but you can also have an affiliate program built right into your own system.

I chose a plugin called Affiliate Royale ($99) which is written by the same guys who make MemberPress; and if you are using MemberPress Affiliate Royale is packaged with it for free! It integrates really nicely so that any new user is setup as an affiliate, and given a special affiliate link, automatically.

A beautiful design

Not only does WordPress offer the ease-of-use of its powerful built-in publishing tools but there are thousands of beautiful ready-made designs, called themes, that range in price from $0 to $99.

I went with a theme called Webbie ($45) and modified it to create easy-to-read, clutter-free lessons with lovely large typography.

Floating elements, like the header, footer, and table of contents area, make important links available consistently without getting in the way of the core lesson material. 

Now, compare that with a page on Moodle.

I know it’s just HTML, CSS and JQuery but with a budget of $45 I had thousands of first-class WordPress themes to choose from. These are options you simply do not have when working on other systems like Moodle.

More useful tools

Scroll triggered boxes

When users log in to your system for the first time, it’s a good idea to offer them assistance in getting familiar with their new environment. Videos help but you’ll find a lot of people won’t sit through them, preferring instead to learn the ropes themselves.

To cater for this tendency in new users, it’s best to provide a heads-up tour when the user lands on the page you wish to explain.

Two options for this:

In the end I chose Scroll Triggered Boxes because it’s more lightweight and less complicated than the JQuery website tour plugin.


Students in live classrooms have a host of creative ways with which to give their teacher constructive feedback on a lesson (yawning, talking, sleeping, leaving) that simply are not available online.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a way to capture reviews after each lesson, and then display those reviews on the public-facing sales pages of your website? 

Well, there is. check out the Rich Reviews plugin (free).

Zopim Instant Chat

Finally, although I don’t use this on my site many purists, especially in academia, won’t even consider an e‑learning system unless it offers instant messaging.

I’ve looked at loads of options for this, and the one I liked best was Zopim Live chat plugin (recently acquired by ZenDesk).

You can be set up and chatting to logged in or non-logged in visitors on your website in just a few minutes.


One big advantage WordPress has over traditional e‑learning systems like Moodle, is easy integration with a wide range of cutting-edge business and digital marketing tools.

Not only will WordPress handle your lesson delivery and membership stuff but it also doubles as a marketing vehicle, offering you everything you need to rank on search engines, integrate your social media profiles, connect to Google analytics and run all your content marketing activities. 

Using the tools listed above you can have an operational membership site up and running in just a few days. 

Creating great content and establishing yourself as a leading expert online, that’s the difficult part.

In any case, I hope this will help you save time and money building an e‑learning /​membership website with WordPress.

Brian Duffy

Brian Duffy teaches business owners how to manage and grow their WordPress websites. You can view his WordPress tutorials for free on WP Applied or say hello on Twitter @wpapplied. Brian is passionate about technology in education and lives in Dublin, Ireland where he teaches in a city college.

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