Live chat: now in all your Populi courses

Plus, full LTI capability and other improvements

New in Populi courses: live chat! Now your instructors and students can converse in real-time right in any Populi course. Chats let you embed images (even from Instagram), videos from YouTube and Vimeo, documents from Scribd, and even use emoji characters. They're easy to set up: just schedule one and everyone in the class—students, auditors, profs, teaching assistants—can join the conversation.

5-8-13 chatroom

To use chat, the course instructor just needs to click Chat and start a new chat session. There's nothing to set up or figure out—it's live and ready to go in every Populi course.

Populi now has full LTI capability

A few months ago we added some basic LTI functionality, letting you link Populi courses to Moodle (or any other LTI-capable LMS). We beefed this feature up in two key areas:

  • The LTI connection now lets the external LMS pass grades back through to Populi's gradebook
  • Faculty no longer need to remember the consumer key and shared secret to link to the external LMS

Read more about it in our Knowledge Base.

Here's some other stuff we released recently:

The Data Slicer has a few new reporting options:

  • You can now get data for Cumulative Credits across All Terms (which lets you get data out of Populi that was previously tedious to retrieve)
  • We also added Unknown and Blank to the Exit Reason options in the Data Slicer, as well as a new condition called Student Role Status, which has options for Active and Inactive

The Degree Audit now shows incomplete courses in the "not completed" view.

Course evaluations have a new faculty visibility option: Available after 60% completion and course is finalized.

You can now create custom course Delivery Methods in Academic Settings. We also let you use Delivery Method as a fee rule. And, you can now include Delivery Method in the XLS export of the Courses Table.

Custom transcripts can now include course comments and progam-based honors (contact support if you'd like us to update your transcript template).

Weekly release notes

A story about breaking a habit

We recently began publishing weekly release notes in our Knowledge Base. Each week we post a list of Features & Improvements and Bugfixes that have gone live on our customers' sites. The list will capture everything we release, from the big to the small, from the really cool to the kinda mundane, from the hotshot new feature to the fix for that dumb ol' bug.

We haven't been very consistent with release notes over the past year. If you checked the dates, you'd be forgiven if you thought we hadn't done anything to Populi between March 2012 and April 2013. Of course, that's not the case. We've been very busy (and we remain so). But we've let detailed release notes fall by the wayside.

That happened because we changed how we develop and release new stuff. We used to save up a pile of things and dump them out onto Populi's servers during the wee hours of the night, all at once. This lent itself well to big blog posts and release announcements in the Knowledge Base. But now we develop, test, and release features and fixes individually*—it's a much better system that lets us be more agile and responsive in our development and support. But, it doesn't lend itself to the big announcement too well—after all, who wants a million posts about individual bugfixes?

For whatever reason, that notion of the Big Announcement stood in the way of actual communication for about a year. Something dumb like that shouldn't get in the way of getting the work done, but that's what it did. One day early in April, however, I (the writer) had a DUH moment: the Big Announcement isn't the only way to communicate about releases. So I started compiling the week's releases in a digest post in the Knowledge Base. No need for a big to-do: all our customers need is a regular update about what's new and what's been fixed. Small, quick posts: problem solved.

The takeaway from all this relates to something we wrote awhile back...

...software (like any tool) creates habits in its users—especially software that makes you do too much work. These “habits” aren’t limited to individual users, either: sometimes, entire schools shape policies and institutional workflows around the limits of what their old system could do.

Populi sometimes disrupts how a school runs itself because schools have adapted to their old software. And, it turns out, we did things a certain way because of how our old software "trained" us to inform customers about new releases. But our new development protocol obviated the need for the old "big-announcement" strategy. It was a minor disruption, but one that nonetheless affected our transparency and communication as a company.

And as it happens, the solution was incredibly simple: stop thinking in the old ruts.

* Do you like technical explanations? Here's what we used to do, and here's what we do now...

Feature Spotlight: Course cloning and syncing

Courses contain a lot of content. Links, files, reading lists, assignments, tests, lessons, and so on... and to make your courses as useful to your students as possible, it's good to throw it all in there.

But what if you have four sections of Business 201 to run, and the course is the same this year as it was last year? How are you gonna get all that content into this year's courses? Are you gonna go download all of that stuff and then re-upload it into each section? Sounds like fun!

That's why Populi courses have had cloning and syncing from the get-go. Cloning lets you import content from one term's course to another's. Syncing lets you share content among sections of the same course in the same term. They save you a ton of work: no re-uploading, no tiresome double-checking, no Did-I-remember-everything? night terrors. These features let you share the items you'd otherwise spend the most time creating: assignments (and groups), faculty-created discussions, files, lessons, links, books, supplies, and tests.

Cloning

There are a few ways to clone course content:

When an Academic Admin is adding courses to a term, they have the option to Import Courses from any other term:

4-22-13 Import Courses

When doing so, they can simply import the courses, or also clone the course data (that is, the content)—as you might guess, this gets a lot of work done in just one step:

4-22-13 Clone From Course

Course instructors can also use the clone feature once they're assigned to teach the course. In the course's Info tab, just click the gear, select the items to be cloned, and go for it:

4-18-13 Clone

4-22-13 Clone selections

Academic Admins have an additional option here: they can clone content over from different catalog courses. If you need materials cloned from, say, MGMT201 into BUS201, just ask an Academic Admin user to do so.

Sync

If you have multiple sections of a course, you can sync them. Syncing not only lets you share content among course sections—it also automatically updates all sections if you make a change in any of the sections.

It's simple: in each section's Info tab, just check "yes" for sync.

4-17-13 Sync Edit Sync

After syncing sections, you can also un-sync them (just un-check "Sync") and then modify the content for each section. The synced content won't go away, and now you can edit it without affecting the other sections.

Read more about it

This article in the Populi Knowledge Base gives you all the details, plus a few tips.

Cute animals sell software

Webpop, a cloud-based content management system and code editor that lets you build websites, recently ran an experiment on the signup link for their 30-day free trial:

A while ago we launched an interesting little test to dig into the effect of emotional engagement. In this case we decided to test the click through rate on our call to action at the bottom of most of our pages where we urge people to give our 30 day free trial a shot.

They put up a picture of a black lab puppy gazing at the signup button; next, they compared the click-rate between the puppy-version and the text-only version. The results were startling:

It turns out, the puppy version had more than double the number of clicks on the signup button than the text only version, with a statistical certainty of more than 99.9% of this being more than just random coincidence.

Double the clicks! That's, frankly, amazing. Seeing that we were probably leaving money on the table, we cast aside our convictions about straightforward marketing and inaugurated an experiment of our own:

Introducing: the Signup Piglet

Not having any puppies around the office, we decided to make use of our ready access to piglets (not that we have piglets running around the office... though, a man can dream, can't he?). So, here she is—the Signup Piglet! Click anywhere on this little straw-covered cutie to go to our signup form, where you can contact us about a demo or subscribe to our newsletter.

We look forward to hearing from you!

signup piglet

 

Life lessons: the steer

Our company's culture and understanding of itself isn't just determined by what we do within office walls. Sometimes something outside the office proves a perfect metaphor for something within the company or our industry.

For instance, Toby Robinson just bought a yearling Angus steer to put on his three acres of grass just outside of town. One morning, he dropped a note on our group chat:

4-12-13 cow loose

By 10:10 AM, Isaac, Brendan, and Mark had joined Toby, fanning out into the hayfields and tree farms surrounding Toby's place in search of the steer. A mud swath surrounded the adjoining hayfield, some 80 acres of steep Palouse hillside green with the new growth of Spring. Surely the steer had traversed this swath, leaving hoofprints, and had paused somewhere in the rolling green to snack on the tender young grass. Populi is a company of experienced hunters and animal husbandmen; we'd track down this errant animal in no time.

But after circumnavigating hundreds of acres that morning, we found nothing save for a fresh splatter of dung in a field. This 600-pound, sternum-height Angus steer had disappeared without a trace. No hoofprints in the mud. No lowing off in the trees. No torn turf where he'd paused for a bite to eat. Nothing. We reconvened at Toby's house and shook our heads; our hapless QA guy called Animal Control and called  his neighbors to advise them of the loose black steer. Our best guess was that he'd beelined south, back in the direction of the ranch from which Toby had bought him a few days before.

That evening we all received a text from Mark Ackerman:

4-12-13found

Mark lives on the ridge up above Toby. Speaking with a neighbor after work he mentioned the steer and asked if she'd seen anything.

"No," she said, "but someone called me earlier to ask if I'd lost a calf..."

The steer had wandered south and then west, traveling up and down the Palouse slopes and the fingers of the forested ridge before wandering onto a small farm some four miles away. Our entire search in the hayfields was focused in the wrong area; our notions of him beelining south were belied by his true course: due west. In short order the steer was returned to Toby's pasture, and all was right on the farm.

This episode really reminded us of some of the bugs we've had to fix.

Most bugs are easy to find. "These credits aren't adding up correctly." "Oh, sorry about that, there was a bug in the calculation. Fixed it!" Others, however, ain't. Permitting me to quote myself, here's what's involved sometimes:

One of our programmers—usually Patrick—simply reads through the code, line-by-line, to find what’s wrong. A few things to keep in mind about this job:

  • Computers and software are very literal; they require extremely precise instructions in order to work.
  • Bugs take several forms. The code might have a syntax problem, or is missing a statement, or has a slash where it should have a bracket (among a zillion other things).
  • Indeed, bugs are usually miniscule, but a tiny error is all it takes to transform a precise instruction into nonsense.***
  • Every part of Populi talks to other parts of Populi. And even those functions that aren’t directly connected are linked together like that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon**** game from the late ’90′s. A bug in one place can affect a dozen other functions that rely on the broken function to do their own jobs.
  • Populi has about 361,000 lines of code.

Of course, knowing the nature of the problem narrows the needle-in-a-haystack odds in the bug hunt. For instance, if someone’s having trouble in Admissions, we know not to look at the Library codebase. Of course, given Populi’s intra-connectivity, sometimes we do need to look afield for the bug; a problem with Student Billing might trace back to an error in course enrollment, for example.

It's those last ones—those bugs in course enrollment that cause unexpected things to happen in Student Billing—that make us feel like we're tracking a steer through the Palouse hills. And sometimes it takes a chance mention from another user reporting a weird thing on, say, a transcript for us to figure out that the Billing bug actually stems from Academics.

Sometimes we think the bug is off to the south somewhere, when in fact it's due west.

4-12-13 calf

Enhanced Library search

Plus other things we've let loose in the past several weeks...

We just released a pretty smart update to Library that includes much-improved search capabilities. The new search...

  • Includes a number of new operators that let you get more specific with your search
  • Accepts "fuzzier" inputs—that is, it's more tolerant of misspellings; typing "Shakspeer" will now net you that copy of Hamlet you've been looking for...
  • Lets you search for exact matches for title, author, and subject

3-8-13 Library search

You can also now import and export MARC records right within Populi! Browse Resources and Resource Batches let you export MaRC records of your resources, and Add Resources gives you the option of importing a MaRC file to create new resources.

And in case you missed it, about a month ago we also released spine and barcode labels for library resources. Read about them in the Knowledge Base.

A minor refinement of user roles

The Bookstore and Library Staff roles are no longer tied to the Staff role.

When we initially created these user roles, we tied them to Staff so they would be able to access certain personal details for Bookstore customers and Library Patrons. But this arrangement proved a little too liberal—for instance, many Library Staff are student workers for whom Staff access isn't exactly appropriate. So, we de-coupled those roles from the Staff role. If you believe this change may affect your Library and Bookstore users, please see this article.

Additionally...

The Data Slicer now lets you:

  • Add communication plans en masse
  • Retrieve advisor information for students
  • Add any tag as a data column
  • Retrive anticipated completion dates for students' degrees

The Enrollment XLS  report now lets you include additional columns.

Speaking of additional columns, we added several Prospect info fields to the "export helper"—you can now include them as additional columns when you export, say, the Students Table.

We added some new print options to course evaluation reports.

You can now print transcripts in bulk from the Academic Term > Students Table tab; there's also a new getTranscript call in the API.

There's a new specialization type for degrees: Concentration.

We now warn you about ungraded assignments when you're finalizing a course:

3-4-13 Finalize warning

And pop-up notifications now stay onscreen for ten seconds (up from three).

3-14-13 new growl

All this, together with numerous bugfixes, performance tweaks, and minor interface items.