Release trickle: January 2013 edition

Happy third day of 2013, everybody! Here's a quick update on what we've released over the past few months:

1098-T updates

Just minutes ago, we updated how Populi handles IRS 1098-T forms. Previously, we generated them only for students who met the exact IRS qualifications; we also had a muddle of export options. Here's what we changed:

  • We now generate 1098-T forms for all students enrolled in a given calendar year—by default
  • We give you the option to disable 1098-Ts for individual students on their profile
  • We broke out Release to students from the basic export options
  • Export options have changed: the PDF (IRS, College, and Student Copies) and e-File exports now only include forms that have been released to students; the XLS export includes all students shown on the 1098-T report
  • To make e-Filing easier, Populi can now remember your TCC, EIN, and Financial Aid phone number (via Financial Aid > Settings)

These updates should make 1098-T reporting even less of a miserable quasi-governmental-body-induced headache.

Other stuff

Everyone now has the By Term tab on their Profile's Financial tab—among other things, you can now add room and meal plans to anyone (great for those folks who spend the summer in your dorms).

We added student age to the IPEDS completions report.

For our ABHE customers, there are a few new preset report items for the ABHE annual report.

You can now find students with $0 balances in Billing > Current > Student Balances.

Course assignment descriptions now let you include live URLs. Link away!

A few new custom transcript variables let you show earned units that count towards the student's GPA.

Aaaaand, some back-end speed optimizations on course evaluation reporting.

Soon to come: we're closing some loopholes regarding grade locks for students who haven't yet completed their course evaluations.


Selling is what selling sells/The lonely saints of the seven avenues/Could sell the seven hells!
—The Clash, "Car Jamming"

“The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction… If everyone were satisfied no one would want to buy the new thing.”

Thus wrote Charles Kettering, inventor and ersatz philosopher, in 1929. Kettering spent a goodly chunk of his professional life in the employ of General Motors as head of research; his work spanned a number of disciplines, including marketing. To American businesses, it was a potent, irresistible thought: if people are satisfied, they won't buy our things... so we'll just make them dissatisfied with what they have. This thought molted into consumer-focused advertising, now so familiar to us that we don't notice how pervasive and intrusive and habit-shaping it is. Some words from William Cavanaugh really get at it:

In fact, most contemporary marketing is based not on providing information but on associating products with evocative images and themes not directly related to the product itself. Non-commodifiable goods such as self-esteem, love, sex, friendship, and success are associated with products that bear little or no relation to these goods. The desire for these goods is intensified by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, what General Motors’ research division—in a reference to changing car models each year—once called "the organized creation of dissatisfaction."

Products are sold to solve problems; Kettering's genius was to locate the problem in the person, rather than in the material situation. If the problem is that you don't have a car, any car (or even a city bus pass) will take care of you. But if the problem is your self image, your independence, your virility... well, this year's model has a bigger, throatier, more emotionally-fulfilling engine than that old thing you're driving, fella. This psychology bruntly manifests itself in the housewife hectored by her sister-in-law because of spots on her dishes; it is more subtly and appealingly deployed by Apple, the single most effective creator of dissatisfaction ever.

This is simply the way marketing is done now: aim the pitch not at the need but rather at that psychological pressure point, that emotional vulnerability, that underlying hunger that motivates all other actions. It's used on individual consumers, and it's also used on institutions. Higher education institutions have particular desires, insecurities, and goals that motivate them, and software is nowadays pitched as the panacea to nearly every problem—including these deeper issues.

As evidence, we proffer marketing quotes from a variety of education software companies. Read them, and ask yourself what they're really selling:

Prestige and hipness
Relevance and community
Institutional identity and uniqueness

All of these products solve certain problems for schools and educators—they track data, keep records, pull reports, handle grading, email donors, and so on. But look at where the copy actually tries to make contact with you. All of these quotes leap from saying some form of "this product does that" to "we'll make your school everything you wish it could be". "We build software that lets you... be a leader... change learning... be complex and unique... be the answer to all your students' questions..." and so on.

And just like what's promised you by that emotionally-fulfilling muscle car engine, those results are something a software program simply cannot deliver.

Populi is a tech company that serves higher education and solves particular problems for small colleges. But one of our fundamental beliefs is that technology cannot even begin to replace institutional vision, competent and committed faculty and staff, and most of all, meaningful communication with students. World-changing leadership, depth of community, institutional pride, and whatever else is implicitly promised in the above copy—these things take decades to develop, decades during which one year's Latest Technology will inevitably fossilize into next year's antiquated dinosaur.

Hopefully, then, our own marketing copy holds up to that belief. We try to stick to this basic story: Populi exists, it does these things, you get it for this much, so wanna try it out? In a lot of places, we have to strike a balance between describing the functions it performs and the more intangible elements—ease of use, visual design, and so on—that invite bloviated copywriting. Here and there we promise things like, "a more usable and accessible dataset that will do more for your college": we should perhaps soften that to, "...that can do more for your school...".

Our yardstick for our own writing: if there's anywhere in our copy redolent of Charles Kettering, we want it gone.

Populi handles critical operations for a school, and our customers depend on us to make sure a lot of essential things happen. In view of that relationship, we simply can't afford to over-promise regarding what we do. Matters of prestige, community, relevance, identity—software can help, but it can't make it happen. If you don't like where your school is at, Populi might help with your change of course. But it isn't that change of course itself.

IE8 going the way of the dodo on January 1, 2013

We're dropping support for Internet Explorer 8—as of January 1, 2013, Populi will no longer support that very troublesome, outdated browser.

We cut IE7 loose a few months ago (after its share of Populi logins fell below 3%), together with old versions of other browsers like Firefox 3 and Safari 3. IE8's share is currently below 5% and is falling; more people access Populi via Safari on iPad than IE8.

The takeaway: it's time for IE8 users to update your browser! New browser versions are simple to get, more secure, and incorporate improvements in speed, reliability, and compatibility with web standards. Another benefit: it helps us focus on moving Populi forward. Few things grate on us more than hacking our code to deal with some sociopathic element in IE8—especially when we could spend that time building new features or improving current ones.

So, hotfoot on over to one of these links and get updated!




And if you really need to run some version of IE, see what version Microsoft will let you download in your version of Windows.

Moodle and Populi

Lots of our schools use Moodle alongside Populi. Moodle is a free, open-source LMS that schools can use (together with some investments in IT personnel and equipment) to run online courses, and it has some purchase among the kind of smaller schools Populi is built to serve. Even though Moodle competes with Populi, we also know that it's not necessarily a simple matter for a school to drop its investment (especially that of faculty hours) in Moodle.

So, with our latest release, we added a couple new things to courses that will let your faculty use Moodle alongside Populi with greater ease: a Common Cartridge importer and LTI links. We've posted a brief tutorial that walks you through how to use both on the Populi Knowledge Base.

Course evaluations are here!

The crew here put in a late night October 3rd releasing our latest update to Populi. Here's what's new...

Our top Feature Request: Course Evaluations

Populi course evaluations let you gather your students' thoughts on your courses and faculty so you can dig into the results to gauge where your school is doing well and where it can stand some improvement. Here's how it works:

First, you design your course evaluation. It's a lot like building an online test, but with a different set of question types. You can set individual questions to required or optional and to apply to the course or the faculty. After you design the evaluation, you attach it to your courses.

Then you set evaluation availability on the Academic Term page. You can make it available to your students for any timeframe, with the option to lock their grades if they don't complete the evaluation by a certain date (they unlock it by submitting the evaluation). And to help preserve student anonymity, you can restrict faculty from seeing the results—or release them only after 60% of the course's students have submitted responses. If you need to adjust the availability for a particular course, you can do that on that course's Info tab.

Then, students get alerted to submit their evaluations. Taking an evaluation is just like taking an online test.

After students submit their evaluations, the results are aggregated in the Course Evaluations > Reporting tab. The report filter lets you drill down to see evaluations from different terms, programs, courses, campuses, and for particular faculty members. You can also export the results to integrate the results with other reports.

Common Cartridge

We've also added a Common Cartridge importer to Populi courses. If your school comes over to Populi from another LMS that supports Common Cartridge, Populi can now import your assignments, lessons, discussions, links, and tests from the other system. Just click the action gear in the course Info tab, select Import Common Cartridge, and check off the course elements you wish to import. This will save your faculty the work of manually re-entering all their info stored in your old LMS.

For those who don't know about Common Cartridge, "It's a set of open standards... [that] enable strict interoperability between content and systems." That is, if you design a test in one CC-compliant system, it will work in any other CC-compliant system. If you'd like to read more about Common Cartridge, there are worse places to start than the IMS Global CC FAQ.

The Populi Knowledge Base is public

Though not actually part of our software release, it's worth mentioning that the Populi Knowledge Base is now public—that is, anyone on the internet can come read it. It makes it easier to link to articles when we respond to support requests, and it also helps new users get on board. Of course, you need to be logged in to submit a new request or suggest a new feature—but the rest of it is wide open for anyone to read.


We changed the font to the more-readable and more-biggerer Proxima Nova. For an example, check out the new login screen, which now lets Populi remember your username:

Course rosters: more accessible, more handsome*

Course rosters now feature student pictures. Additionally, students can now click the Roster tab to see other enrolled & auditing students.

The miscellany

You can now accept online applications for past academic terms—up to one year in the past (useful for modular and other open enrollment courses).

Catalog courses now have settings that let you create development courses. Development courses do not affect earned credits or GPA, but do count towards enrollment figures when it comes to calculating financial aid. Essentially, they let students attempt credits without ever earning them—if your school takes Federal financial aid and gives out athletic scholarships, you know of what we speak (there's also a corresponding setting for transfer courses, too).

Bulletin boards now have a 50,000-word per post character limit, and discussions have a 250,000-word per post character limit. Start typing!

W's now show on transcripts as soon as a student withdraws (that is, after the add-drop date and before the course is finalized).

* Provided, that is, that your student ID pics look good...