I have a lot of students who build online courses (or plan to) and offer them on their site. Either as a lead magnet or a paid product.
With that in mind, it has been on my to-do list for awhile to take a good look at Thrive Apprentice and do a review for it.
After all, I have been a pretty public proponent of Thrive Themes. I am a big fan of their products - especially Architect. And I have known about Apprentice for awhile, but I didn't have any hands-on experience with it.
Time to fill that gap. Right here and now. 🙂
In this post, I am going to dive into Thrive Apprentice and see how it works. I'm going to do this by building a basic online course setup for my wife's young business. I've basically taken on the marketing for her. And, of course, I'm her webmaster. And she doesn't pay me anything. 😉
So, let's dive in.
What Thrive Apprentice Does? How's It Fit Into The Marketplace?
Doing online courses on WordPress is nothing new. There are several ways to go about it.
One method is simply to customize the theme to do it. In the end, there's not much that's inherently special about displaying online courses. It is just a form of content - and displaying content is what WordPress does.
But, an online course has a different look and feel than a regular blog. It might come with some unique functionality, too. But, in the end, you can create a pretty decent online course setup using a custom post type and some custom page templates in any theme.
Most people don't know how to do that. And so they go looking for themes or plug-ins to make it easier. And there are many to choose from, including:
Now, these options are all good in their own way. They are full LMS (Learning Management Systems) platforms. This means they do far more than just displaying your courses. They often come with a lot of other functionality like quizzes, grades, homework, certificates and other school-like features.
Frankly, a lot of membership sites don't use any of that stuff. So, it ends up being a bunch of payload for "bells and whistles" that you're not even using. But, it all brings more clutter, more settings, more confusion.
Those options above are great if you actually need all that stuff. But, what if you just want a nice, clean way to organize content into courses and modules and have it all look nice and simple for your students?
That's what Thrive Apprentice does.
Thrive Apprentice allows you to cleanly and simply organize your online courses on your site. It is NOT, however, an LMS. It does not come with quizzing, grading or any of that stuff. That's not the intention.
Apprentice is part of the Thrive Suite and that will run you $228/year. Obviously, when you get the full suite, you're getting a lot more than just Thrive Apprentice. It is a heck of a bargain.
Obviously, though, if ALL you need here is a way to manage your courses, then price-wise it would make sense to scope out the competition. While Apprentice is part of a larger suite, some of the competing full LMS products have pretty competitive pricing (or even free).
This is where one has to understand the core mission of Thrive Apprentice.
It is specifically designed to be EASY. To be SIMPLE. To not be over-engineered. It is a purpose-built plugin with one mission: to make it easy to assemble online courses for anybody, without having to deal with any complexity.
And to that end, it works pretty well. Let me show you...
Getting Started With Apprentice
Once you activate the Thrive Apprentice plugin, it will show up in the Thrive Dashboard just like any other Thrive tool. When you first go to access the Apprentice dashboard, you're going to get a popup to ask you to choose or create a page that will serve as the home for your online courses.
Essentially, you're choosing your Course Dashboard page.
Next, you can choose to personalize the template for this page or just proceed with the default. I just chose the default for now. I am then launched into the Apprentice Dashboard.
I'll move to create my first course. I'm presented will several pretty self-explanatory options:
Pretty simple stuff:
- Course title and description
- Cover image for the course
- If I want to use a video intro for the course
- If I want to have comments turned on for the course
All simple stuff. And once saved, I am then moved to the Content tab where I can begin to add my lessons to this course.
Courses can be organized into modules, chapters and individual lessons. Depending on which you choose, you have different settings.
- Modules. You can give each a title and description (of course), have a unique cover image for the module, decide whether to have comments on or off.
- Chapter. Basically just the title, since chapters are not intended to be major course sections but merely lesson groups.
- Lessons. Same settings as a module, but you also can choose whether it is a text lesson, audio lesson, or video lesson. Audio lessons allow you to enter a URL to an audio file and it will display an audio player on the front-end. A video lesson allows you to pull in an embedded video from any source and display as the lesson.
So, using these simple settings, I go ahead and enter a few lessons for this simple course my wife is creating. After adding 3 simple text lessons and adding them to a module, this is what the interface looks like:
The interface is very simple. I like intuitive software that you can pretty much figure out how to use pretty quickly without having to dive into the documentation. Thrive Apprentice seems to fit the bill so far.
It is easy to edit lessons. You can re-arrange the course easily with drag-and-drop. Honestly, you'd need to be half asleep to not be able to instantly figure this out. Although, I will say that I (at first) missed the option there to edit the lesson content in Thrive Architect. That should probably be made more obvious than it is.
I like it. 🙂 But, what does it look like on the front-end at this point? I publish the course units and then go have a look-see...
What Courses Look Like To Students
At this point, I had only entered the most basic information. Only 3 lessons - all text. No feature image yet. Just basic placeholder stuff. And here's what it looked like so far:
One mistake I see that I made was that I entered the text for the lessons right into the text description field for each lesson. It doesn't appear correctly that way and that's because that's only for the summary. When hit the button to "Add Content" to that lesson, it opens up Thrive Architect to actually build the lesson! OK, so that's how it works!
Very nice. And, typical of Thrive Themes, I love how their various tools work so nicely together. It creates a very powerful and seamless experience.
What if I want to make changes to the overall course template? Well, from the Settings menu on the Apprentice Dashboard, I can choose "Template Settings". That brings up a simple little editor where you have some dummy content inside your template and you can adjust some settings.
The basic editor provides very few options to change things. Basically only the font, the base color and the ability to change the logo at the top. At first, I was underwhelmed. But, then I saw the "Advanced Settings" option.
Under Advanced Settings, you can change both the text labels and fonts for a number of items like course titles, descriptions, buttons, labels, etc. You can also control similar settings for your main course dashboard page:
This whole section allows mostly fonts and labels. You cannot fundamentally rearrange the basic layout of the courses.
If you are using one of the Thrive Themes that is compatible with Apprentice, then you can enable additional settings for the theme. Since I am using their FocusBlog theme, I enabled this functionality. It does a couple of big things:
- It enables custom post types for Apprentice Pages and Lessons.
- It enables a whole new settings screen for the theme specifically aimed at Apprentice.
That settings screen allows you turn various features on or off. That is pretty self-explanatory.
The custom post types can, at first, be a little bit confusing. But, essentially this is a way to allow you to organize course content using the same basic editing interface you would have for any other page or post on your site. Like any post type, you have a custom category structure for it and you can use the "Manage Content" section to arrange lesson posts under your categories. The Apprentice Pages would be for other membership-type pages that don't fit into a course. Things like a member dashboard, an upsell, etc.
This approach to Apprentice is considered the "old Apprentice". You lose the nice interface for arranging and editing your courses. Everything is done more or less the old-fashioned way - using custom post types. You're using the same old interface which is part of an Apprentice-compatible theme.
The Thrive Apprentice plugin is their newer setup. It contains it's own output and it's own theme and therefore is a standalone option that does not require compatibility with any theme.
Course Access Controls and Membership Site Usage
To be clear, Thrive Apprentice is not a membership plugin. It will not control access to course, manage members, or provide any way to charge anybody for anything.
Thrive Apprentice concentrates simply on the organization and display of courses. It integrates with other tools for the other stuff. So, you will still need a membership plugin and/or a system for charging people for your courses (if you plan to sell them).
All courses in Apprentice have an "Access Restrictions" tab. If you enable restrictions, you can force people to log in to view that course.
You need to set up Access Rules. This is where your integrations come in. You can also simply use WordPress's built-in user roles to restrict access. In my case, Apprentice detected that I have MemberMouse installed on this site and it gave me these options:
From what I can tell, Apprentice currently works with MemberPress, Wishlist Member and MemberMouse. They also have a less direct method to make it work with numerous other membership plugins. That less direct method basically entails assigning a specific WordPress user role to your members and then using that to control course access.
So, that's pretty simple. You use the membership plugin to control access to the course. If they have access, it will let them in. Otherwise, it won't.
Apprentice also has a pretty deep integration with SendOwl. I have not tried it, but apparently you just enter your API details for SendOwl into the Thrive Dashboard and this enables access control options in Apprentice for SendOwl. Here's info on how to integrate with SendOwl.
While the SendOwl integration is nice, it is weird that so much of their documentation concentrates on this one platform. I mean... what if you don't want to use SendOwl? Well, it's no problem. The membership plugins it does work with provide a lot of options. It seems to me, however, that having more built-in official integrations aside from just 3 plugins and SendOwl is something they need to do.
Can You Customize The Design?
As shown above, it is easy to control the basics of your course dashboard and course pages. But, those basics include... just the basics. The basic color, fonts, sizes and the default labels.
What if you want to go further than that? What if you want to take full control and design a much more custom course presentation?
The plugin alone provides limited options for customizations. The layout of your course portal will be more or less what Thrive Themes designed. It will look much like their Thrive University.
Within that framework, you can customize your course portal in a few ways without getting really geeky:
- You can create a WordPress menu and assign it to be your Thrive Apprentice menu. This will put a menu at the top of your course portal next to the logo.
- There are numerous Apprentice widgets available for you, including things like lesson lists, course menu, course author and progress bar.
- You can drag those widgets (or any other widget) into the Apprentice-specific widget areas such as the footer area and the sidebars (for courses, modules and lessons).
If you choose, you could then override some of the default CSS using your main theme CSS and take more fine-tuned control.
Technically, you could directly customize the output templates as the templates themselves are in the /templates/ sub-folder of the plug-in. This would be overridden every time you upgrade, however, so I don't recommend it.
Clearly, Apprentice is designed to be easy and fit the needs of most people. However, it isn't set up for a hardcore designer to go in and radically customize the theme. This makes sense, however, since anybody who had those kinds of skills could likely very easily create their own course portal using custom theme templates and custom post types. They would have no need for Apprentice.
Thrive Apprentice is designed to make it easy for non-techies to set up their own online course portal. And at that, it does a very fine job.
Thrive Apprentice Limitations
Apprentice is the simplest option I have so far found to enable anybody to create an online course portal with WordPress. It is designed to be simple. That means that it inevitably lacks some things that you may want.
- There is no ability to manage students, see what their progress is on your courses, etc.
- Progress tracking is visually there, but it isn't really real. It will mark a lesson as complete merely by visiting it. There's no real way for a user to check off whether they've really done it or not.
- There is no traditional classroom capabilities such as quizzing, grading, pre-requisites, etc. If you need that kind of stuff, go get a full LMS.
- Other than the widgets and basic settings, there is no deep capability to customize the theme. If you like the way Thrive University looks, you'll be fine. But, if you want a fundamentally different look and feel, that will prove difficult.
It would be nice to see more support and documentation for theme customization of the plug-in. Perhaps the ability to change things using a child theme or, better yet, the ability to use Thrive Architect to fundamentally alter the layouts. That'd be awesome.
The lack of quizzes could actually be handled by using Thrive Quiz Builder. It just depends on what you need. I don't expect Thrive to ever go all in on a full-fledged LMS platform as it just doesn't seem to fit in with their focus.
So, Is Apprentice Right For You?
As far as online course plugins for WordPress, Thrive Apprentice is one of the simplest and most streamlined options out there. It clearly is not designed to do everything the competitors do.
And that might be exactly what you're looking for.
You need to be realistic about your demands. It might be nice to think you need features like quizzes, course pre-requisites, certificates, drip-fed content and all that. But, do you really?
It is all too easy to get feature-happy and fall for all kinds of shiny objects when it comes to online course platforms. But, it is important to be realistic about what you really need. There is power is simplicity.
THE LAB is a pretty full-featured membership site and I don't utilize quizzes. I simply see no point.
If you don't really need those kinds of features, then using one of the LMS plugins simply to organize online courses can be overkill. That's because organizing and displaying courses is only part of what they do. There's a whole lot of code in there for all that other stuff you won't be using.
Thrive Apprentice will fit the needs of most course creators. I see it as a classic 80/20 rule. Apprentice will serve the needs of the 80% by focusing on the 20% of capability and doing that well. If you need the rest, go with a full LMS like WP Courseware.
Thrive Apprentice Review Summary
The Final Word
Thrive Apprentice is a streamlined online course portal creator that is easy and intuitive to use for any non-techie. By concentrating on the 20% of capabilities that 80% of course creators really need, it provides an easy setup that just works for most people who want to have professional looking online courses on their WordPress site - without the complexity.
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