An automotive metaphor

Say your small college is a family of five, you're shopping for a car, and you're wondering what's out there. Here's are some of your options:

On the low-cost end you find:
  • The Word and Excel approach. This is like tying two bicycles together and calling it a car. It's cheap, it rolls, and you're gonna lose your groceries if you try pedaling home on that thing.
  • The roll-your-own Access-based system. This is a bicycle tied to a wheelbarrow, or perhaps a Flintstones-style, foot-powered car: either way, there's lots of hard work involved to make it go anywhere.
  • The K-12 program wedged into a higher education context. This is a riding lawn mower used as family transportation.
  • The fly-by-night company that barfs out something software-ish. This is the shifty used-car salesman pushing a beater '85 Plymouth with no muffler and the stuffing pulled out of the back seats. Also, it's on fire.
Then there are the big guys:
  • The giant hosted database with no interface. This is a 48' shipping container. I guess your family could just watch it sit there.
  • The LMS with all the bells and whistles. This is the luxury tour bus with the helipad and built-in swimming pool that gets two miles a gallon on the highway because it's too expensive to give it an oil change.
  • The open-source LMS. This is a school bus built out of parts from other vehicles and painted up to look like the luxury tour bus. Slightly better gas mileage on downhill slopes, though.
  • The huge, endlessly-customizable SIS with a three-year implementation period. This looks like you've ordered a custom-built Ferrari but by the time all the parts get bolted together you've ended up with a surplus U.S. Army transport.

Further, you'll need a team of mechanics to make sure your fleet of vehicles fits together. You'll also need a warehouse full of spare parts and some long-term maintenance contracts. Oh, and for some reason the window glass on the bus is all blacked-out—so you'll need to hire a third-party automotive glazier to design you a clear windshield.

Is that it?

Is that all that's available to a small college? Of course not. This is the Populi blog, and so now we're gonna liken Populi to the perfect family car... ready? Here goes:

Then there's Populi. This is the Toyota minivan, which seats five to seven, has a lifetime parts-and-labor warranty, and even has a built-in DVD player (if that's your thing) and magazine rack. Sure, it's nothing flashy, but it's good, dependable transportation just right for a wide variety of families.

Arrivederci IE7: March 19, 2012

On March 19th, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 turns three. On that same day, Populi will drop support for Internet Explorer 7, which will be 5½ years old at that time.

Why are we dropping IE7?

A number of tightly-intertwined reasons:

  • It's an old browser that doesn't comply with modern web standards
  • It's old and slow and buggy, not to mention full of horrifying security vulnerabilities
  • Very few people use it any more—it accounts for about 2.3% of Populi logins (see the above chart)
  • Its worldwide usage is dropping*, and it's unlikely that future customers will be using it
  • Continued support of IE7 diverts resources away from more worthwhile long-term projects
What should you do?

If you're using Internet Explorer 7, it's time to stop! IE7 doesn't just have problems with Populi—it doesn't play nice with a good part of the internet, and it's only going to get worse. The solution is easy: download one of these free web browsers (links below). It'll take just a few minutes and make for a much better online experience overall.




And if you're running Windows Vista or 7, you can also try IE9...

*In this article, Microsoft itself says that it is "pleased IE6 and IE7 usage share continues to drop (by 0.85% in October); it’s an indication that customers recognize the benefits they can realize when using a modern browser."

Looking back on 2011

Three weeks and change into 2012, here's a look back at what Populi did in 2011...

We started the New Year with a rewrite of Academics to include Programs, as well as new account management features and better navigation in Admissions.

In April we released Populi Library.

In June we overhauled Financial Aid to include aid applications, batch disbursements, ISIRs imports, and a lot more.

In September we overhauled Courses with new navigation, lots of improvements to online learning, and embeddable streaming media hosted on Populi's new file storage system.

Along the way...

In February we improved search, degree audits, relationships, and statements.

In March we improved the presentation and organization student financial info (statements, balances, and the like...).

In April we added online application notifications so your Admissions staff can hear about new inquiries as soon as they click Submit.

After releasing Library, we followed up with new features (Library Links) and some other updates.

October saw some behind-the-scenes stability and performance improvements.

And in December (right before shuffling off to the Christmas party), we released further improvements to email and the Populi background job-manager, and gave tables a new look.

We have a lot planned for 2012—and we're working on some of it even as this post is being written. We're looking forward to the work we'll get to do, and to seeing how our schools put the fruits of our labors to use.



Feature Spotlight: Relationships

Every person in Populi gets their own profile. It's the best way to gather, organize, and easily find information about the teeming mass of individuals involved with your school. Of course, one of the things about people is that we're all connected in webs of relationships—familial, professional, social—so we built a way for you to keep track of that, too. Fittingly enough, it's called... Relationships.

It's in the Info tab on everyone's profile, showing and linking to everyone in Populi that the person is related to in some way:

There are several types of relationships, and one click designates any one of them as the person's Emergency Contact:

You can sync contact info among related people. This spares you having to double-enter addresses and the like:

Relationships also facilitates some handy communications options, like spouse and merge options in mailing lists:

Another cool thing— parents of students get "Parent of [standing]" system tags, letting you easily communicate with, say, Parents of Seniors to tell them about upcoming graduation activities:

Relationships: another simple feature that lets you do a lot with the people you're keeping up with in Populi.

Oppose SOPA and PIPA

On Tuesday, January 24th, the U.S. Senate is slated to vote on the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Together with its counterpart bill in the House of Representatives, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)*, it seeks to curtail online bootlegging from overseas websites via several means:

  • It gives the U.S. government the power to force internet service providers to block access sites that traffic in bootlegged (or, in the words of the bill's proponents, pirated) content.
  • The government could also sue search engines and other websites to prevent them from linking to such sites.
  • U.S. credit card companies and advertisers would be required to cancel their accounts with those sites so as to cut off their sources of funding.
  • It prescribes jail sentences for users who post copyrighted works or links to infringing sites.

We here at Populi oppose these two bills for a number of reasons. Our chief concerns:

  • They extend considerable powers to the U.S. government to shut down sites that the beneficiary corporations consider "infringing".
  • They allow corporations to sue the owners of such "infringing" sites.
  • The bills are draconian: the government could block sites like Facebook and Twitter if just one user posted just one link to an infringing site.
  • The smallest infraction runs afoul of the bill's harshest measures.
  • Perhaps worst of all: the bills destabilize the Domain Name System (DNS), one of the key methods used to make the internet secure and at all trustworthy.

We care about the internet—it lets us serve our customers and earn a living, after all—and PIPA and SOPA are foolish, short-sighted pieces of legislation that will do great harm to it.

Read more about these bills at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and and contact your Senators to encourage them to oppose PIPA.

* SOPA was shelved on January 16th, which means that the House won't vote on it. It is currently very wounded, but not dead.

Letting people unsubscribe is good for your mailings

In our last release, we improved how Populi prevents you from sending email to people who don't want it.

Formerly, we had a "No Mailings" system tag, which indicated that the recipient had clicked the "Unsubscribe" link in a Populi email. The "unsubscribe" link only appeared for people without a Populi user account, and once clicked, that person would no longer get any email sent via Populi—at any of their addresses.

We replaced that with a finer-grained "No Mailings" setting for individual email addresses. If someone has both a school address and a personal email address, you can, for example, set their personal address to "No Mailings". Or, if someone is included in a Mailing List, they have various "unsubscribe" options—they can unsubscribe from just that mailing list or from all Populi email. And, these options appear for all your email recipients, whether or not they have user accounts. Whatever the case, the new "No Mailings" setting gives your recipients greater control over what they receive from you. And that's an improvement because letting people unsubscribe from your mailings is actually good for you.

We hear that rustling in the audience. "Huh? How is that good for me?"

A few things are in play here. The first is a legal matter: the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, a law that establishes rules that all commercial email must live by (unless you enjoy $16,000 fines). Many parts pertain to Populi email; here's an excerpt from the compliance guide that helped guide the "No Mailings" upgrade:

Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you. Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand... Give a return email address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to stop all commercial messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.

If the message contains only commercial content, its primary purpose is commercial and it must comply with the requirements of CAM-SPAM. If it contains only transactional or relationship content, its primary purpose is transactional or relationship. In that case, it may not contain false or misleading routing information, but is otherwise exempt from most provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act.

The first paragraph is helpful. The second paragraph muddies the waters with that word, "most", and the varying ways the law has been applied since its passage has made us a little cagey. In the wake of CAN-SPAM, the best-practice is to play it safe and give the recipients more ways to opt-out of the emails you send them... or, more accurately, to give our customers more way to let their recipients opt-out.

The second big thing in play is this: there are two ways a recipient can opt-out—by clicking your unsubscribe link or... by marking your email as SPAM. Getting marked as spam presents manifold problems:

  • All of your future emails will go to the recipients' spam folders and will miss their inboxes entirely
  • You will not know whether your emails are hitting their inboxes or their spam folders—if you're marked as spam, you receive no notification whatsoever
  • Their email service will become very suspicious about any email sent from your domain to anyone using that service—not just the person who marked you as spam
  • If you're marked as spam often enough, Populi gets blacklisted—affecting not just your emails, but also emails from other Populi customers

To put it concretely, every time someone marks a Populi email as spam, that reduces your chances of getting into a new prospect's inbox.

Our previous setup, unfortunately, allowed for considerable abuse of Populi email; a few irresponsible senders sent out a lot of unwanted mailings, and our old protocol didn't give their recipients adequate recourse to opt-out. Consequently, a lot of Populi mail was being marked as spam, and it was getting harder and harder to deliver even legitimate, responsibly-sent messages. The last batch of email improvements, we trust, will comprise a fine counterattack against these problems.

So, in summary:

The old way: potential CAN-SPAM violations for you, email deliverability headaches for us, annoyed recipients, and uncertainty about whether your mailings made it to the inbox.

The new way: CAN-SPAM compliance, increased email "trustworthiness", better unsubscribe options for recipients, and a "No Mailings" setting that lets you know where you stand.