July 29, 2013

From Gerald R. Lucas

My review of WooTheme’s Sensei.

I’ve been a fan of WooThemes for a while now. I generally like their designs for Wordpress: they are functional and most have a minimal aesthetic that I find pleasing and functional. They recently have begun developing plugins which seems to have taken their emphasis away from the themes, but when I saw Sensei announced, I knew I had to try it out. What follows is my short review after having used it to teach two courses this summer.

Wt sensei.png

My needs for course management are pretty straightforward, so Sensei seemed like a good fit. It has to align with my current teaching philosophy and practice, and not get in the way too much. What attracted me to Sensei is its asynchronous nature, its WordPress integration, and that its developed by WooThemes.

I didn’t get Sensei when it first launched, but waited to test it for my two fully online summer courses: Digital Humanities and Writing for Digital Media. In my experience with WooThemes, the first release is generally pretty good, but subsequent releases tweak minor details making their products solid. They listen to their users and generally respond quickly to support issues, and these facts keep me a subscriber.

I started with Sensei 1.3.3, and they released two new versions during my semester, so now my site runs 1.3.5. The latest version is 1.3.7, so my WooThemes updater never has truly worked, though I followed the directions for activating my license key. Manual upgrades are not a big deal, but really should be unnecessary.

If you’re familiar with WordPress, setting up courses and lessons is straightforward. First make a course; second, add some lessons. Lessons pretty much work like standard posts, but remember to use an excerpt unless you want the whole lesson to appear in the course’s index page. Perhaps auto excerpts for lessons are in order? You can fill in some lesson information, like how long it should take to complete and its complexity level, and even embed an instructional video. Another potentially cool feature is the ability to set a prerequisite before students can take a particular lesson. This didn’t work for me; more on that below.

Sensei needs a dashboard – a landing place and overview for all content. I should be able to see recently submitted quizzes, newest posts, and course analytics all in one spot. As it stands now, each of these is its own screen, and the navigation is slow and tedious, especially when grading quizzes.

I really like the quiz feature, and WooThemes, with release 1.3, has made them pretty robust. They have a number of question and answer types to choose from, but for the nature of my teaching, short answer and multi-line answer are the best for me. These are set up right from within a lesson’s edit page. I have two gripes with the current implementation of quizzes: notifications and evaluation.

When a student completes a quiz, I should get a notification in some way – perhaps on a missing dashboard, or maybe even a little indicator badge at the top of my WordPress install somewhere. This summer I had 30 students, and having to dig down into the grading menu for two classes and multiple quizzes was cumbersome and time consuming. Surely there’s a better way to see if students have taken a quiz. Quiz submission order seems pretty arbitrary, too. How about an indication when exactly the student submitted the quiz, like date and time? This information is important, especially when a class has weekly due dates.

Speaking of timing: I’d like to have the option of setting a due date. This wouldn’t be as necessary if the date and time of submission was indicated. Along the same lines, there should be a way to control access to quizzes. As it stands, students can view a quiz anytime they want without taking it. Users should have the ability to control the number of quiz attempts and the ability to set a time limit for taking quizzes. Some teachers might not want students to have access to quizzes before they must take them.

Grading is also pretty straightforward, though it could also use some work. First, students must be able to submit marked-up text, using italics and links. And I need to be able to see their submissions this way. Part of online teaching for me means that the students learn integral digital literacies, and this means they must be able to format text correctly, using paragraphs, possessives, quotations, and hypertext. As it stands now, the submissions look terrible, apostrophes and quotation marks look strange, links don’t work, and it really is difficult to grade longer passages. (This might have been fixed in the version 1.3.7, but I have not been able to test it yet.)

Being able to provide feedback on quizzes would also be great. In fact, a cool feature would be having a dossier on each student where I could take notes, give advice, or even upload a PDF grade report.

One of my biggest issues with Sensei this summer was not a Sensei issue at all, but setting up my WordPress install for user logins. I wanted a simple way for students to login to the site. Since Twitter is an important part of all my courses, I thought letting students use their Twitter logins would be a good call, so I installed the Wordpress plugin Social Login. It seemed simple enough: it would use the students’ Twitter IDs to make accounts. At first, it seemed to work, but when students returned the next day, it would make them a different account! Say good-bye, then, to some of Sensei’s cool features, like analytics, progress tracking, and prerequisites. I tried to get support from the developer of Social Login, but they are not WooThemes. Don’t do it. Lesson learned here: I guess I’ll just use WordPress’ built-in account creation to avoid these issues this fall. If anyone has another solution, I’d love to hear about it.


In all, if you’re looking for a simple, no-nonsense course management plugin, you could do much worse than Sensei. While it has room for improvement and it won’t fit the needs of all educators, it is far more eloquent than many course management systems I have tried, including Moodle and Desire2Learn which tend to be overkill and much more time consuming to maintain. I think WooThemes should offer a trial period on Sensei; at $99 I had to get my department to purchase it for me. Still, I look forward to successive releases, and I plan to continue to use Sensei this fall.

What I Liked

  • Simple set up
  • Works like WordPress
  • Asynchronous
  • Not overkill on features

What Needs Work

  • Dashboard
  • Automatic upgrades
  • Quizzes
  • Evaluation and feedback