Low-key Releases

Every Friday we publish release notes, a digest of features, improvements, and bugfixes (and videos and whatnot) that have trickled out of our office over the previous week. Sometimes there's a marquee release—some big new feature that adds something significant to Populi's abilities—but most weeks, it's all small-potatoes kinda stuff. But it's these minor updates that best depict what we're doing here. The small, iterative items that either improve how you do what you're already doing or smooth out the small interactions you have with Populi are more likely to impact your day than something that merits front-page news.

So, here's the inaugural installment of some periodic looks at some of these low-key releases.

Last September ↗️

"There's a new Unmask/Copy button for SSN's so you no longer have to edit the field to see a student's full SSN/SIN."

We've always been pretty finicky about Social Security Numbers. In addition to the security measures we have in place for all your Populi data, we added a few extra access controls and "masked" the SSN on profiles (e.g. displaying ***-**-1234 instead of 123-12-1234) to make them that much harder for unauthorized people to get at. But those extras also introduced some headaches in some legitimate use-cases. Before, you’d have to edit the SSN to even see the whole thing, and that introduced some potential issues—say you were trying to copy it for inclusion in a report, and you accidentally edited part of it. So, the unmask option lets you lay your eyes upon it (for 30 seconds, then it disappears again), and the copy option lets you easily copy-paste it, no risky editing required.

Last November ↗️

"The Advised Students report has the new checkbox functionality we've been rolling out across Populi reports."

In May of '22 we started adding checkboxes to reports around Populi. These handy little squares let you select specific people returned by your report filters to include in bulk actions or exports. They were initially developed to let you perfom apply/forfeit actions en masse on the Deposits report, but it quickly became clear that most of Populi would benefit from this kind of granularity. The initial rollout of this feature speckled checkboxes over a variety of reports in Academics, Admissions, and Financial, and now we're working our way through the rest of Populi. Checkboxes really come in handy for a report like Advised Students, where the more options you have to attend to the needs of individuals, the better.

Last December ↗️

"Awhile back we'd undertaken an effort to update the code underlying Populi's online payments features. That effort seems to have been completed with this week's rewrite of the online donation page to better handle credit cards and ACH charges that require two-factor authentication."

Periodically we rewrite swathes of Populi's back-end code to make it more efficient and compatible with the constantly-evolving requirements of web security. Thus with this rewrite, which we unfurled across three or four releases with barely a single perceptible change visible to regular users. Frankly, this is the kind of update that can produce a lot of problems—slapdash updates to online payments would inflict some stupefying headaches on our customers. We have a few defenses against that. First, we employ some truly nerdy coders who enjoy putting all the dots and dashes and brackets and whatnot in just the right places. Second, we have another group of nerds who perform QA, or Quality Assurance; their job is to find problems with what the coding nerds crafted and try to break all their stuff. Third, we have a cautious development philosophy here. That is, it's far more worth it to us to provide uninterrupted, consistent service than it is to rapidly modernize code we'd like to replace. In this case, we turned on the new stuff for a select few customers and watched it like a hawk; after enough time elapsed without any issues we updated everyone else's Populi sites. Even though this update didn't produce anything flashy, we're confident that it will nonetheless provide you with a stable, boring, surprise-free way to fetch funds from payers and donors for the foreseeable future.

A Brief Guide to End-of-Term Tasks in Populi

You might be in the thick of your school's End-of-Term workload, or maybe you're just staring at it through a crack in the bunker wall as it shambles towards you. Wherever you're at, we hope you'll find this breeze-through of academic term wrap-up tasks useful.

The life-cycle of a course

The course life-cycle detailed in the Knowledge Base involves jobs typically handled by faculty and those that fall to Registrars and Academic Admins (whom we'll refer to as "Admins" in this article).

When preparing for the term...

  • Admins set up the term (add/drop dates, registration periods, et. al.), populate it with courses, assign faculty, oversee enrollment, and attach evaluations to courses.
  • Faculty add content to their courses: assignments, lessons, files, discussions, and suchlike.

During the term...

  • Admins handle one-off situations—late enrollments, withdrawals, status changes, and other items that would directly affect a student's transcript.
  • Faculty run the course. They grade assignments, run discussions, administer tests, schedule conferences, take attendance—the quotidian stuff that feeds into students' course grades.

At the end of the term...

  • Faculty enter final grades, compose grade comments, mark the occasional student Incomplete, and finally—DEEP BREATH—hit that finalization button and hand the course off to the admins. Around this time, depending on settings, they can view their course evaluations.
  • Admins may sometimes intervene to unfinalize and then refinalize courses due to complications like grade adjustments and so on. As student course evaluations come in, Admins can run reports on these.

The main job: finalizing courses

Grading an assignment

Finalizing courses is where you summarize a student's class performance in a grade and plug it directly into the larger story—things like the student's transcript, his degree progress, and even financial aid eligibility (among many other things)—with just a few clicks. When you finalize your course or individual students:

  • You submit your students' grades for incorporation into their permanent academic records and lock their coursework to any further changes.
  • You lock the course itself to any further changes—course content, individual students' coursework, and even stuff like bulletin board posts (except for incomplete students—more on them, below).

Before you finalize, you'll want to make sure you've entered everything you want to be part of a student's academic record. Primarily, this will involve grading assignments—a quick scan of the gradebook will show you anything that requires your attention. If any students need to be marked Incomplete, you'll note that on the Course Roster. That done, you can turn your attention to reviewing and entering final grades and course comments, consulting the Student Course Summary page for an overview of the student's performance and participation.

The manage finalization screen

When you're ready to finalize the course, you'll go to the Manage Finalization screen, which you get to via the Course > Settings view, Gradebook, or the Final Grade screen. It presents you with a summary of your students' grades, attendance, and any course comments. If everything looks good, you can finalize. Check next to individual students whose fates you wish to seal, or simply finalize the course and all students. Once you press Submit, those grades and stats are instantly in the Admins' hands and have been incorporated into the students' academic records.

As the term rumbles to a close...

Marking an incomplete student as complete on the course roster

Most of the work is done! Here are some of the things you'll likely deal with after courses are finalized and you finish buttoning-up the term:

  • In some cases, admins may need to unfinalize the course or individual students to make updates or corrections—generally to fix a grade or update an enrollment status. After the adjustments are done, it's time to refinalize.
  • If you have Incomplete students, faculty and admins can grade their work as the students hand it in; once they're done, go to the Course Roster and set the Incomplete status to No. Nota bene: taking care of Incomplete students doesn't require unfinalizing/refinalizing!
  • Course Evaluations aren't available for faculty to view until 60% of students have completed them; admins might also require that the course be finalized as well. Faculty can view their evaluations in Course > Reporting. Admins can view evals as soon as they start rolling in and can also run reports on them.
  • Throughout the term, but usually after students have seen their grade reports, faculty and admins may field questions about how grades are calculated. To give you a leg up on these questions, this video describes how assignment grades are transformed into course grades.

What To Expect During Implementation

After a few demonstrations of the software and several rounds of question-and-answer with us, your school has decided to sign up for Populi. Now it's time to get up-and-running: the implementation process. Here's a look at what you can expect as your school starts using Populi.

In general, implementation includes:

  • Initial site setup—establishing your school's unique Populi site and filling in some ground-level settings
  • Data migration—transferring data from a legacy system to Populi (not all schools need to do this)
  • Training your users—adding people to Populi, giving them user accounts, and letting them dig in
  • General setup tasks—getting Populi ready for everyday use: tasks like creating admissions applications, building degree audits, detailing fees, and so on

Implementation is a big job, but you can do it! Not least because at every step of the way you'll have full access to all of our support resources, and your account manager will always be near at hand to answer questions and walk you through anything you need to know about Populi.

Initial site setup

Your Populi account manager starts by sending you a link to a brief "Data Survey", in which you specify your school's basic details (approximate student count, contact people, whether you need data migrated, etc.) and then an account setup page. The setup page lets you pick your school's unique Populi URL—something like yourschool.populiweb.com—and we use this information to create your Populi site and one or more user accounts. Your school's new site created, you'll start filling in base-level account settings and add a few other users to assist in the implementation steps that lay ahead. A crucial setup step: since you'll rely on Populi to send a lot of email on behalf of your school, you'll need to add your Populi site's DNS and SPF records to your domain so your email won't be marked as spam. It's an important step, but also a very simple one that's easily accomplished by your school's IT staff.

That completed, you're now ready to begin setup in earnest. The next steps depend on whether your school is migrating data from a legacy system. If it isn't, you can dive right in and start setting up Academics (the foundation of much of what else Populi does), Admissions, Financial, and then the other areas you'll be using—this is outlined under General Setup, below.

Data migration

Data migration lets you pick up where you left off in your previous system (while also cleaning up old errors in your data so it's more usable for your school). Not every school migrates data, however, and if that's you, your Populi site is ready for setup as soon as you complete the signup form—skip to the next section of this article.) But if you are migrating legacy data, keep reading!

After completing initial site setup, you'll start transfering your data—in the form of data backups and transcripts generated by your old system—by uploading it in your Populi Account section. At any given time, we'll be migrating data for several different schools; the sooner we get our hands on your data, the quicker you secure your place in the migration queue.

Your school will have two Populi sites in operation during this phase. One will be your live site—the permanent site that your entire school will eventually use. The other is a temporary site we use for data validation, which refers to the process of migrating data and testing it for accuracy. Depending on the queue and how quickly you'd like to begin using Populi, we may encourage you to do some live site setup that the migration process might otherwise have accomplished.

Validation generally takes from four to sixteen weeks. During this time you can continue using your legacy system as usual. Validation begins when a Populi Data Manager (DM) uses a script to translate your data into Populi's database structure. We've migrated data from numerous systems over the years and have many translation scripts at hand; we're also quite experienced in writing new scripts to fit migration situations we haven't encountered before. The DM then uploads that translated data onto your validation site. You (and others at your school) will examine the data and flag any errors for the DM so we can further refine the scripts.

Transcripts sum up just about everything in your academic data, and the legacy transcripts you provide are crucial for helping refine the scripts. One of your main jobs during validation is to compare legacy transcripts to the new ones generated in Populi. Common issues include grade scales, transfer credits, retakes, and any unusual academic situations. Any errors you spot at this point will indicate systemic data issues, so you need only look at some representative transcripts covering unusual situation. For example, to test how transfer credits have been migrated, you need only look at a couple transcripts with transfer credits. To test pass/fail courses, just look at a few such transcripts. And so on.

As you provide feedback on the data, we refine our migration scripts. And as we refine the scripts, data issues disappear, and eventually the academic data will function as it ought to within Populi. When you are ready to sign off on the migrated data, weʼll schedule a date to "go live"—that is, to push the finished data to your live site.

For a more detailed look at the data migration process, have a look at this article.

Training users

The first user account was created when we brought your live Populi site into being (as described in Initial Site Setup, above). This user is given all of Populi's "root-level" user roles and is listed as one of your school's Populi Account Administrators (PAA)—which gives the user access to your Populi site's most sensitive settings (security, billing, etc.). It also lets the user add other people to your Populi site; as a super-user, so to speak, she can give anyone any user role and even add additional PAAs.

Setup, with or without data migration, is a big job, so right away the super-user should start adding new people to Populi and giving them user accounts, taking care to assign each person the appropriate user roles.

And then, start training them! Actually, that's our job: Populi Support is here for you, especially in this initial phase of learning the system. Here are all the ways to get a hold of us. We want to hear from you, so don't hesitate to reach out with questions and requests.

In addition to written resources, we provide a wide variety of training videos as well as live Focus Sessions, which are small-group tutorials—you can find a list of upcoming sessions right here.

General Setup

Training and general setup generally go hand-in-hand. Once your people have access to Populi, their first jobs will be to set up their respective areas of Populi, leaning heavily on our support resources to walk them through building applications, courses, tuition schedules, and so on. A common theme throughout Populi: provided you get the basics established, Populi lets you use as much or as little of the system as you find necessary; you can make a big push to get it all set up or you can take your time to phase in use of different features. Nearly all of our schools use a combination of Academics, Courses, Admissions, Billing (together with supporting features in Contacts and Communications), and Financial Aid; most also use Campus Life, Donations, Advising, Bookstore, and Library. That, more or less, is also the order in which we generally recommend you approach general setup.

As mentioned, Academics is the core of Populi and is foundational to everything else you'll be doing with the system. You'll start there, beginning with essentials like programs, grade scales, academic years and terms, the course catalog, and degrees (and degree audits, too!). You'll move on to building courses, working with your faculty users to build assignments, the gradebook, lessons, discussions, and any other features they'll want to employ (some faculty will want to use everything, some just want to record grades and attendance).

Of course, Academics is nothing without students, so you'll want to get them entered and learn how to register them for courses.

After the basic Academic setup is completed, you could begin on either Admissions or Financial. Admissions looks to Academics for information about years and terms, programs, degrees, specializations, and some other matters; Financial also depends on that information, and if you wish to charge fees related to specific courses, you'll want the course catalog underway, as well.

Admissions setup builds the framework for adding and contacting leads, receiving inquiries, processing applications, and admitting students. The two most intensive tasks will be designing applications and building online reference forms. Since admissions work leans heavily on things like mass email, there will also be some work to do over in Communications, to say nothing of getting familiar with adding and importing people in Contacts.

Financial has three facets: Student Billing, Financial Aid, and Donations. Behind all those three is Accounting, which is where financial setup begins. With your Chart of Accounts filled in, you would first tackle Billing: start building tuition schedules, fees, and online payments. As we look at it, the ideal setup for Billing in Populi is one in which all (or nearly all) student charges are generated automatically based on enrollment and you have provided students with low-friction online payment options. The closer you get to that, the more work Populi takes off your shoulders.

Financial Aid is essentially a payment method for student charges. Depending on what kind of financial aid your school accepts, you might only need to add a few institutional scholarships; if your school takes Title IV Federal aid you can set up the DOE integration.

With those areas underway, you can next turn your attention to these other features, whether during the implementation phase or at a later time when you want to phase in their use:

  • Campus Life handles facilities, student housing, violations, and any fees (or penalities) associated with these items.
  • You'll get the most out of Donations if you implement online payments; building on the work you did in your Chart of Accounts, you'll add funds, donation pages, custom fields, and any associated items in Communications and Contacts.
  • Advising builds on Academics; to set it up, you'll add advisors to your students and set up the academic flagging system.
  • Bookstore setup involves creating inventory and organizing it, not to mention establishing ways that students can pay for items.
  • Library can be a big job, which is why we can import MaRC records to get you started (sometimes this is handled during data migration). Beyond that, you'll be establishing locations, loan policies, and other settings that let you loan out resources and keep them properly indexed and organized.

It's a big job...

...but you can do it, not least because you'll have our dedicated help every step of the way.

Welcome aboard!

Dark Mode

Populi in dark mode

Populi: now with Dark Mode. Dark Mode is a display setting that inverts our customary dark text on light background theme for light text on a dark background. Dark mode can be easier on the ol' eyeballs—those lazy bags of fluid in our skulls that don't like it when we strain them by staring at bright electronics late at night. It can also help focus our attention on documents and other content. And some people also believe that it also looks sleek and cool and... maybe a bit mysterious.

You can set how Populi displays in your personal settings under Interface Theme, you'll have these options:

Dark mode is managed in your personal settings
  • Everyone's new default setting is Auto. This means that Populi will imitate whatever display mode you're using on your computer. Modern operating systems generally give you some kind of dark mode option, which usually adjusts the display according to ambient light—during the day it's in light mode and when the sun sets it's in dark mode. Auto keys off of whatever display setting you have on your device.
  • The Light and Dark options let you pick one or the other—and Populi will display thusly no matter what.

To accommodate Dark Mode, we've also given Populi's appearance one of its periodic refreshes—in fact, it's the largest visual update to Populi ever. Controls like drop-downs, checkboxes, buttons, etc. have clean new styling, navigation tabs have been refined, colors have been tweaked, and all the icons and charts have gotten a makeover. Account Admins also have new options (in Account > General Settings > Appearance) to adjust your school's Populi colors when users are viewing it in Dark Mode.

People have been asking for Dark Mode for some time now, and we're really pleased to get it out to our users.

Focus Sessions

Introducing Focus Sessions! Focus Sessions will help new Populi users get training in small groups using virtual meetings with Populi Support. We plan to run these Zoom-based sessions on a rotating basis, cycling through a collection of topics germane to schools just getting going with Populi (or starting to use a new section of the tool).

To join a Focus Session, you’ll go to the Populi Knowledge Base, find an open session on a topic in which you want training, and register for the session. Our Account Managers will be directing new users there as part of the onboarding process, as well as anyone else contacting them for further training.

Focus Sessions will consist of a private Zoom meeting with someone from Populi Support together with a few other users. The goal is to keep the number of users per session low, so that each person has a chance to ask questions and interact with the trainer directly. The trainer will spend a little time at the top presenting some basic material, and then users will direct the flow of the rest of the session with their specific questions. Each training will go for about an hour.

We'll start by offering two sessions a week, the topics rotating from one session to the next and then starting back over as we work through the list. Initially, you can expect sessions focused on these topics:

  • Introduction to Populi covers basics like logging in and handling various user admin tasks.
  • Academics: Enrollment works through the setup necessary to enroll students, how to think about academic years and terms, and managing online self-enrollment.
  • Academics: Degree Audit shows how to create course groups and add degree requirements for student Degree Audits.
  • Admissions: Managing Leads introduces how leads work in Populi, what the different lead statuses mean, and how to use the Funnel Report.
  • Financial: Student Billing leads you through creating the "ideal" Populi Billing setup, one which takes advantage of all of the automated billing processes in the software.
  • Financial Aid: Disbursement shows the setup steps that let you package and disburse aid, as well as the basic process of creating awards and batching disbursements.
  • Running Courses walks through the lifecycle of a course, including assignment setup, lessons, tests, various management tasks, and finalizing grades at the end of the term.

Focus Sessions should go a long way towards teaching you what Populi does and how to do it. Check here for open and upcoming Focus Sessions (or click the Follow button on that page to hear about it via email).

Invoices, Payments, and Accounting

Let's walk through what happens on the accounting side when you create an invoice and record a payment.

First, some background: Populi (like most any software that deals with money) operates on a double-entry accounting system. That is, each individual transaction matches a debit to one account with a credit to another—for example, a student pays you and your Accounts Receivable is credited while your bank balance is debited. This creates a self-balancing system of debits and credits that lets you know exactly where your money comes from, where it goes, and how much is in any given place at any moment.

adding an income account

That's why the first step in financial setup is setting up your Chart of Accounts. Every transaction in Populi needs to debit one account and credit another, and you need to tell it which accounts are in play. For the purposes of tuition and fees, you create income accounts, which show how much money you earn for a particular revenue stream. Populi's Chart of Accounts comes with a number of accounts already built-in—including income accounts for tuition and fees—that most schools update or add to in order to reflect their own financial practices. The most important of these accounts is Accounts Receivable, which is hardwired to be affected by nearly every transaction you record in Populi.

adding tuition brackets

When you create tuition schedules, you'll associate their various tuition brackets with an income account; likewise with fees (and room and meal plans, and so on).

payment settings

Financial setup also requires you to associate payment methods with asset accounts. So, f'rinstance, online payment setup involves you choosing which asset accounts online payments flow into. And so with other payment types like checks and financial aid awards.

invoicing pending charges

As covered in various places, there are no end of ways to add charges to students. Enrollments automatically trigger tuition and fee charges. You can manually add any kind of charge on student profiles. Fees might be triggered via Campus Life, like when you add a Room Plan to a student. Whatever the case, fees first hit a student's account as a pending charge. Pending charges give you a good idea of what a student will end up owing you, but none of these charges actually hit your accounting balances until you invoice them.

invoice transaction details

When you invoice a charge, here's what happens:

  • The income account associated with the item—the fee, the tuition bracket, whatever—is credited: its balance increases.
  • Meanwhile, your Accounts Receivable is debited: its balance also increases.
  • If there are multiple charges linked to different accounts, then there will be multiple debits and credits for this transaction.
recording a payment

Just as there are multiple ways to add charges to a student's account, there are multiple ways that payments can be recorded. If a student, or someone with the payment link, makes an online payment, part of the act of processing that payment involves creating the payment transaction. Such transactions are also recorded when financial aid is applied to an invoice, or if you manually record a payment when a student walks into your office with maybe some Dogecoins jingling in his pocket and settles up with you.

payment transaction details

Whatever the case, payment transactions flow into the asset account you've designated for that payment type; it gets debited, increasing its balance. Meanwhile, Accounts Receivable matches that debit with a credit: its balance decreases.

The end result of adding a charge to a student and taking a payment to resolve it is this:

  1. Two transactions—an invoice and a payment—have been recorded and have affected three or more of your accounts, to-wit:
  2. The charges credited the income account(s) and debited Accounts Receivable.
  3. The payment debited the asset account and credited Accounts Receivable.
  4. And so, ultimately, the income account shows how much money you've charged for particular particular revenue streams...
  5. ...and Accounts Receivable shows that you were owed money at one point and now you're not...
  6. ...and the asset account shows that you have earned (and now possess) money or Dogecoins (or... ?) that'll sit tight until it's time to ride again.

Should you wish to learn more about how these features work, you could do worse than to check out the Knowledge Base, or you could make your way to our YouTube channel's Finance/Billing playlist.