Low-key Releases: April 2024 Edition

We periodically like to highlight some of our Low-Key Releases, features that don't necessarily merit their own special announcement but that nonetheless speak to the constant, iterative improvements we add to Populi every week. In this edition, we're gonna take a look at some of these updates from the last several months, drawing on our weekly release notes. And let me take the opportunity to mention that if you're logged in to our help system, you can click the Follow button on that page and get the release notes emailed directly to you whenever we publish another installment (nearly every Friday at this point).

February, 2024: QR Codes, HTML Print Layouts

You can now create QR codes for admissions applications, inquiry forms, donation pages, and regular forms. As you probably know, these things let you point a smartphone camera at a printed code (on a poster, in a letter, stamped on a postcard, et. al.) that will open your device's browser on the linked website. Wherever you can find the embed code for one of these forms, you'll see a button to create the QR code; after setting the style options, you can then export an .SVG file to incorporate into your printed matter.

Print layouts got a big fat upgrade with HTML Layouts, which will eventually replace .ODT layouts altogether. If you know your way around HTML and CSS, have a look at these tips and tricks to get the lay of the land with how these layouts work. There are also new print layout types for student diplomas and schedules.

If you're set up with a plagiarism-checker (Populi works with Turnitin and PlagiarismCheck.org), you can now check admissions essays for plagiarism similarity.

All the reports in Financial now have those handy checkboxes, giving you more granular control over what's included in your exports and actions.

We also added more choices for intervals for recurring payments and donations. Now you enable recurring payments/donations by checking the options you'd like to make available to payers; the options include weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, and payment plan-based.

December, 2023: Password Security, PlagiarismCheck.org

Populi has started scanning databases of publicly-exposed data breaches from other sites (here's our main source of information) for compromised passwords; if your Populi password matches a password found in a data breach, we nag you to change it to something more secure. Our article on resetting passwords goes into greater detail.

In addition to Turnitin's Similarity product, you can now check for plagiarism/similarity (see above) using PlagiarismCheck.org. Also in addition to Turnitin's Similarity product, Populi's new LTI 1.3 capabilities let you set up integrations with Turnitin's Feedback Studio and any other education software that uses the LTI 1.3 specification.

October, 2023: Room Plans, Student Schedule View

Rooms and Room Plans have been made more flexible. In former times, a room could only be associated with one, single room plan. Now, rooms have a default plan, but if a student has a different room plan, he'll be charged according to his plan, not the room's. We made this change because a lot of schools have different room & board rates for, say, international students or married students—now it's a lot simpler to charge them the correct rate regardless of their room assignment.

The Profile > Student > Schedule view gives you multiple angles on a student's weekly course schedule. You can also export it (using the new Print Layouts for student schedules).

September, 2023: Upgrades for Online Payments, SSO, and Mailing Lists

We gave online payments a pretty thorough technical overhaul that allowed us to add a number of upgrades to the payment experience:

  • The Someone else paying? link is now shorter and easier to share. It's good for 400 calendar days, and whenever someone uses it to make a payment, the 400-day timer resets. So you don't really have to worry about the link expiring any more.
  • Forms and Transcript Requests get their own Gateway Uses; these items were formerly included under the Tuition and Fees uses.
  • All payment screens across Populi now have the same user experience (application fees and Bookstore charges kinda did their own thing back in the day).

SSO is a pretty nerdy feature that lets your users sign in to Populi with the same login credentials as other systems at your school. We added new features that give your SSO setup a lot more flexibility, including...

  • ... A new setting that lets you allow emails as usernames. Previously if you tried logging in with billybob@juno.com, we'd strip off the @juno.com. The new setting accepts the full email address as the person's unique username.
  • When you're in SSO mode and edit a user, you can now decide whether they can use Populi, SSO, or either one to log in.
  • A new SAML SP setting (enabled by default) lets you opt in or out of automatically redirecting users to your SSO login page after SSO is enabled. Opting out means that the Populi login screen will show a link to your SSO login, complete with a "friendly name" for your SSO IdP.

Mailing lists also got one of those technical overhauls that allowed us to release these upgrades:

  • The list of recipients is now refreshed every 10 minutes.
  • One-time lists now autosave and have a new Save as mailing list action.
  • The mailing list history view is now paginated, and includes entries for printed letters and text messages.

August, 2023: The new Populi API

We released a completely new API that uses modern REST practices with JSON requests and responses that are easy to add to your own scripts and integrations. It has thorough documentation that includes code examples in several popular languages for every call. A rich log viewer interface inside Populi allows for easy debugging. Webhooks for nearly a hundred events can be configured to push the data you want to your application without polling.

The new API replaces the old one, an idiosyncratic, XML-based system that was pretty challenging for beginners to use. It will be phased out completely in the next year or two.

Release Notes

Thus the highlights. But the real story is found in our weekly release notes, which catalogue all of the improvements (and bugfixes, too!), big and small, that we add to Populi every week.

A Log For Them to Sit On

A teacher and two young students get a jump on the day’s lessons just after the morning Populi delivery in this 1905 photograph.*

Somewhere some place in some book or some other thing goes a proverb along the lines of, “Education consists of a wise and caring teacher, a humble and curious student, and a log for both of them to sit on.”

A bit mawkish, perhaps, but there’s still something to it. The word “education” itself—the Latin root meaning, as it does, leading out—implies a particular arrangement: You need someone willing to share their understanding. You need another person who's willing to receive what’s being shared.

And the log: you need a place for them to sit, to have the kind of leisure that lets the one speak and the other listen.

In the saying’s economy, the log is all the stuff at a school that isn't a teacher teaching and a student studying. Buildings, staff, administration, budgets, infrastructure, donors, software—especially the software—these all exist to support that fundamental exchange. That means that here at Populi, we're in the log-parts business. And whatever their marketing language might claim, every other software vendor out there also sells nothing more than log parts. If a company promises to unlock unlimited possibilities to unshackle teachers and students and take education beyond any place it’s ever gone before—or some similar bloviation—well, there’s a pithy barnyard phrase for that.

It's up to the teacher to care and speak. It's up to the student to listen and do. And the log? Its job is to be sat upon. To stay out of the way. Log-part vendors like Populi have a duty to make the log comfy, to shear it of pointy branches, and keep it free of ants and beetles. Nothing more. If a company starts putting on airs about how it’s part of the conversation or how it frees education from the constraints of sitting, it's missing the point entirely. And it’s probably hoping that you will, too.

But Populi knows what it’s here to do. Our purpose is simply to help the log do its job: to help your people free up teachers and students to pursue what matters.

* Image Credit: “Sleigh Loaded with Logs [07]”, White Pine - King of Many Waters Collection, University of Idaho Library Digital Collections, https://www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/whitepine/items/whitepine102.html

Cutting Through the Noise

Buying college software can be a nightmare. A lot can go wrong, and sometimes it seems that the devil you know—your old system—is better than the devil you don’t.

You’ve heard the stories. You might’ve even been there yourself. There’s a lot you might be worrying about...

What if they screw up our data?

How do I know it’ll work as promised?

What if there are three years of pain before it starts working?

How long before it needs upgrades?

What will they charge for those upgrades?

These concerns weary the mind and make the whole process even more of an ordeal. But perhaps we can offer a few gut checks that might help cut through some of the noise.

How simple is the tech setup?

What will the system’s technology require of your school? Do you need 27 programmers to run it? Will you need to maintain it and manage servers yourself? Is it actually web-based, or does it need some techie VPN thing to work? Who’s in charge of keeping it secure? Will your students and faculty be able to use it?

Another way of phrasing this question might be: What is the real ongoing cost for the system?

Am I excited about the pricing?

It’s more than just what it costs. What does the vendor’s pricing motivate them to do?

Do they get a big check upfront? Do they lock you into a long-term contract? How does customer support fit into their business? Does their pricing make them focus only on new clients? Or does it compel them to support all their customers?

You might also ask what exactly you get for the number you’re discussing. What’s included? What isn’t—and why not? Does this pricing indicate that you’ll need to someday pay more to get the service you thought you were getting?

Do I actually believe what they’re telling me?

If a vendor has complicated tech requirements but assures you that won’t be a problem…

And if their pricing doesn’t require them to serve you but they assure you that you’ll have their attention…

…How do you know that they’ll actually do it?

The support experience frequently resembles the sales experience. So don’t just listen to what the salesman says. Look at what they actually do.

  1. Determine whether their interests are aligned with yours. Is their product and support built with you in mind? Is their pricing designed to keep you on their minds?
  2. Consider their sales process. Are they promising you the world to bring about a sale? Are they transparent and helpful? Do they conceal their price behind negotiations that make you wonder what their other clients are getting? Or is their pricing clear and plain to understand? Are they attentive to your questions? Or do they drop the ball regularly?
  3. Ask for references. Do their other clients enjoy working with this vendor? Or is it just the devil they know?

What about Populi?

Here’s how we would begin to answer these questions; of course, we’re happy to go into much greater depth on any of these topics...

What are Populi’s tech requirements?

Populi is web-based and fully-hosted. We handle all the infrastructure and connections and backups and whatnot. You don’t need to download software or updates. You don’t need your own servers. It doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or PC. Everyone at your school can use it.

All you need is the Internet.

What is Populi’s pricing model?

Populi charges you month-by-month. There are no upfront costs whatsoever. Nor are there any cancellation fees. There are no long-term contracts, which means you can leave at any time. The price includes the software, support, implementation, upgrades, and everything else we could think of. All the details are available on our pricing page and in our Terms of Service.

This means we don’t make money when you first sign up. We only make money if you want to stick with us.

Consequently, our entire company is built around winning you back every month. Our software developers are devoted to building and improving a system that’s easy-to-use, never obsolete, releases new features and updates every week, and works together seamlessly. Our mature, thoughtful support staff is devoted to providing helpful answers in a reasonable timeframe to make sure Populi is working for your school.

Will Populi actually work how we say it’s going to work?


But don’t take our word for it. Read our blog and knowledge base. Watch our videos on YouTube. Sign up for a demo account. Ask what current Populi customers think about us. Dig into it yourself—we’ll provide the shovels!

Also, remember our pricing model. We don’t make money unless you keep coming back. You’ll find that this changes the sales process: why talk you into signing up if we know it’s a bad fit? Because if you quit after a month or two, we lose. We don’t have the luxury of cashing a big upfront check after locking you into a 3-year contract that you can’t get out of.

We either perform or we lose customers.

Our sales approach is based on honesty and transparency. We want to have a solid, straightforward relationship from the beginning, one where you can believe that we’re gonna do what we say we’re gonna do.

Give it a try

We hope some or all of this proves useful to you as you consider your options. If you’d like to learn more about Populi, you can get the ball rolling by signing up for a demo or calling or emailing us. We’ll be happy to make at least part of your software search easier and more straightforward than you might be expecting.

How To Win Features and Influence Populi Product Designers

So, you want some new functionality added to Populi. Where do you begin?

The Populi Feature Request forum, that's where.

Here's a look at the forum, what we use it for, and how you can go about writing a winning feature request.

A low fly-over of the forum

The Feature Request forum lets you submit ideas for new features and improvements in Populi. You can also search for existing requests, comment on them, and upvote them. The Populi team reviews everything that happens in the Forum, occasionally weighing in or seeking clarification in the comments; we'll also mark individual requests as Planned (or not), Answered, or Completed. The Forum is tremendously valuable to us: it helps us decide not only what to work on, but also how to design features so they actually solve the problems you bring to our attention.


Voting. For many, it calls to mind one thing: democracy. Well, banish all such thoughts: the forum is not a democracy! We don't wait for a request to get a certain number of votes in order to build it. That said, we want to see which features get upvoted. Why? Because it shows us at a glance which ideas have the most interest. Your upvotes are a great way to get requests on our radar.

How to write a winning request

Here are some tips to set your request on the path to success (although, remember the obvious caveat: we can't guarantee that we're going to build any particular feature...)

  • Search first. The forum has been around for a long time and has many, many, many requests already. There’s a decent chance there’s an existing post you can add your support to instead of creating a new one.
  • Name your request well. The title you give your request is the primary way others will find it when they search the forum (see above!). Summarize your request with a precise, descriptive title so others can discover it and add their upvote.
  • Be succinct. We got a lot of feedback, and there are only so many hours in the day. The reality is that a more concise request is easier to process—for us and for your fellow users—which gives it a better chance of gaining traction.
  • Be specific. A request that we “add this button on that page” often results in someone here thinking, “Oh, terrific idea—I can’t believe we don’t already have that...” And then we add this button to that page in short order. On the other hand, requests like “Fully Custom Everything” might sound exciting, but are too broad in scope and vague in detail to help anyone (and experience has taught us that there are usually simpler solutions).
  • Present a clear use case. If we can’t truly understand a problem, we can’t really consider how to solve it. Having a clear example of the problem lets us test different ideas against it to find the best solution.
  • Provide documentation. If your request contains something like, “we are required to do something by someone”, make sure to include links to relevant documentation. If we’re going to put work into a solution we need to be sure it’s addressing the specific requirements instead of an interpretation of those requirements.

Some comments about comments

Commenting on feature requests is a great way for other Populi users to flesh out and clarify what problem the post's author is looking to solve. Comments give us ideas on how to build a feature that suits all of our users, and so they're tremendously valuable to us. That said, there are a couple things that often happen in the comments that are worth, ahem, commenting on.

This happens a lot: someone posts an affirmational comment, but doesn't upvote the request. Instead of just posting, “I like this idea!”, make sure you also upvote the post to help it rise to the top.

This happens almost as often: someone posts a different request altogether as a comment. You’ve been a good forum citizen and searched first. You find a post that sounds related and maybe it already has some upvotes. And so you post your request as a comment. Unfortunately this doesn’t make your comment part of the request, and so your unique feature idea ends up getting lost in the churn. There’s a fine line to walk here, but before posting a comment first consider whether it’s within the scope of the original request. And if it isn't, just write a separate request.

Keep 'em coming

The Feature Request forum is an essential resource for us, and we read every request, consider every comment, and observe every upvote. If you have an idea for how we can improve our software, we'd really like to hear about it. So keep these things in mind, and keep those requests coming!

Plagiarism and Similarity

Turns out that Turnitin doesn't detect plagiarism. A recent pair of blog posts (here's one and here's the other) go to great pains to distinguish between similarity, which Turnitin does detect, and plagiarism, which it categorically doesn't. "As far back as 2013, Turnitin has been writing blog posts, speaking out, and generally finding any opportunity to clear up the question of whether our products detect plagiarism... The answer, however, is simple: Turnitin does not detect plagiarism."

The distinction Turnitin makes between similarity and plagiarism is that of evidence and judgement. The Similarity product merely "takes what a student submits and [compares] it to a massive database of content, including internet, academic, and student paper content, and [looks] for similarities." Plagiarism, on the other hand, is "intentionally representing someone else’s work as one’s own" (emphasis added). Similarity might be evidence of plagiarism, but strictly speaking, it's never more than that. A number of other factors—assignment requirements, genre, student skill level, to name a few—must also be weighed to determine whether student work shows that intention. Computers can count words. Humans can weigh the factors of a situation. Similarity can be detected by a computer, but the existence of plagiarism requires the judgement of a person.

It's good that Turnitin has this down in writing—because the marketing page for their Similarity product (which Populi integrates with) isn't shy about using the P-word. Web searches for "plagiarism-checker" invariably stick Turnitin's site at the top of the results (not least because Turnitin has bought, like, every other company in the market—and none of them ever hemmed or hawed about the phrase). For that matter, our own marketing materials blithely state that you can use Populi to "Help students stay responsible with... plagiarism checks for all kinds of assignments".

That's marketing for you. It takes shortcuts to get its point across. Turnitin has no desire to expunge phrases like plagiarism-checker from its site in favor of a nuanced discussion of similarities, evidence, and human deliberation. Marketing speaks in shorthand, and "plagiarism detection" is the shorthand for that whole discussion. We could talk about whether that phrase over-promises, whether it suggests that an endeavor of human judgment can be offloaded to a computer, but such subjects are amply covered by others. For now, the question is this: in light of Turnitin's profession that it "does not detect plagiarism," does Populi need to find a real plagiarism-checker to work with?

The short answer is No, not least because no such thing exists. Turnitin is a tool that efficiently checks work for similarities to other work; this is exactly what every other so-called "plagiarism-checker" does (or did before Turnitin bought them). We'll go on providing the integration for our customers, and, for better or worse, we'll continue to use terms like "plagiarism-checker" as shorthand for the service it provides. At the same time, this whole episode serves as a good reminder of what exactly we're doing here. Populi is college management software designed to serve the people who run schools, people who themselves are there to serve the other people at their schools. Ultimately, that comes down to providing a tool that helps you come to conclusions and make decisions on your own.

New in Admissions: Pages, Conditional Fields, Custom Inquiry Forms, and More

We've gone and updated Admissions with some substantial new application features—conditional fields, pages, and various other items—and the long sought-after customizable inquiry form. Let's take a gander at all the new features...


Adding a page break to a Populi application

Pages let you organize long application forms into smaller, more manageable sections. So, rather than a long scroll, the applicant is given links to the previous and next pages at the conclusion of each page. When designing the application, you can add a new page anywhere you need to by clicking add page; you can then title the page, fill it in with new fields and other items, and even set it to Conditional.

Conditional fields

Adding conditions for a conditional field to a Populi application

Conditional fields (pages, too!) remain hidden to the applicant unless he answers a previous field in a particular way. You'll get the option to make a field conditional after you've added a field with pre-set answer input options—Multiple Choice, Checkboxes, Dropdown, and Yes/No. You can then set up conditions that specify when the new field will appear to applicants, and these conditions can be as simple or complex as you need.

Inquiry Forms

Design options for Populi's new inquiry forms

A name, some contact info, and a message—with a couple other options, for a long time, this was about all you could collect with an inquiry form. We've now made them customizable, giving them many of the same features as application forms. The new inquiry forms let you add and organize sections to your heart's content, including linked fields, conditional fields, and headings and text blocks. Of course, we strongly recommend brevity: they're meant to initiate a conversation between a student and your school. The new inquiry forms let you start that conversation just the way you want it.

This'n and that'n

A hidden field is only shown to Admissions staff users.

Those are the big new features; here are some of the other new things we've added:

  • Hidden fields are concealed from applicants and inquirers; Admissions users can fill them in when processing the form to keep track of items for internal use.
  • The new Published setting determines whether applicants and inquirers can view and fill out the form. For applications, this was previously determined by the Show Online setting, which now simply controls whether applicants can start the application online.
  • There's a new Multiple file upload field type, finally letting applicants upload more than one file to a single field. We've also added a Signature field option.
  • Linked fields now let you choose financial aid fields.

Beyond that, there are multiple small improvements to the interface as well as a new internal data model that enabled these improvements.

Have a look at the Knowledge Base for the updated application design and inquiry form design instructions. As always, if you need help with any of the new features, get aholt of Populi Support.