What Populi doesn't replace

Somewhere in some book some place is a line that goes something like, "Education consists of a wise and caring teacher, a humble and curious student, and a log for the both of them to sit on."*

It's a bit mawkish, but there's still something to it. In education, you need someone willing to share their understanding. You need someone who wants what's being shared. And you need something to hold them up, to free them from other labors so one may give and the other receive.

In this phrase's economy, Populi is the log—rather, it's just part of the log.** 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. Log-part vendors like us have a duty to make the log comfy, to shear it of pointy branches, and free it of ants and beetles. Nothing more. If the log starts putting on airs about how it's part of the conversation or how it frees education from the constraints of sitting, it's getting outside of its core competencies. If a teacher is unwilling to teach or a student is unwilling to learn, no amount of technological gee-whizzery is gonna overcome that fundamental failure of communication.

Populi is, as we've mentioned before, in the business of replacing software. Put another way, we're made to help the log do its job: to help your people free up teachers and students to pursue what matters.

* At this writer's first college, phrases like this were as common as blue in the sky.

** Other log parts include: buildings, staff, administration, budgets, infrastructure, donors, and so on—all of these exist to free up teachers to teach and students to learn.

New release: Improved Academics navigation and more

The Populi development team just released the latest in a series of low-key updates to the system. Like other recent updates, this one improves Populi's back-end performance and gives some spit-and-polish to the appearance and interface. Here are the big things we let out of the gate last night...

Improved navigation in Academics

You've seen the video; now you can log in and dig the new and improved navigation in Academics.

Custom info management

We broke out Custom Info management among Admin, Academics, and Admissions. This clarifies the connection between custom info fields and where you'll use them in Populi.

A bunch of other things

You can now change a student's Programs to inactive. This is really useful when a student changes Programs mid-stream or when a student graduates and moves into a new Program at your school.

You can now include custom information on your custom transcripts.

The online application form now lets your prospects choose specific programs in addition to degrees and specializations.

Also in Admissions, we opened up application information to the API—now you can pull an applicant's data to your own custom web app.

For our Canadian customers, Financial Aid now features a built-in, automatic T4A report which lets you export a spreadsheet, PDF copies for your students, or an XML file for the Canada Revenue Agency.

We also included the usual round of bugfixes, server updates, and other little items to help keep Populi running right.

What we've been working on lately

Last night we released some behind-the-scenes updates to Populi. We enabled some caching (which should speed up page load times), switched over file streaming to SSL (more secure!), and updated a number of server settings and other items, none of which can be described in readable English. Thus, the servers.

We also updated the back-end of online testing and email. Email has been around since we first loosed Populi back in 2007; online testing is just north of two years old this month. Since their initial release, we've added numerous new interface features that glide atop a fundamentally unchanged back-end. We've also added thousands and thousands of new users, who have introduced needs, situations, and pressures we didn't originally envision. So, last night's release optimized, streamlined, and stabilized the foundations of tests and email, which will enable these crucial functions to simply work better and more reliably. You won't notice anything new in the interface—all the work we've been doing is strictly under-the-hood.

Well, there's one new thing in tests: now you can re-grade questions. Just go to a student's test history, find the question you want to regrade, and click Edit points. Once you save your changes, the student's test score will automatically update.

This release is part of our ongoing current project: taking a break from developing brand-new features, we're dotting i's and crossing t's to improve the entire Populi experience for all of our users.

New courses and bigger, better files are here!

As September eclipsed August, the Populi crew stayed up into the wee hours pushing our new course and files features out into the wild. We've previewed our new features in a few recent blog posts; here's a more complete description of what's new in Populi this morning...


We moved course instances over to our new tabbed layout, improving the look and organization of Populi courses.

Tabs include Dashboard, Info, Assignments, Lessons, Discussions, Tests, Calendar, Roster, Gradebook, Attendance, and Reporting.

The new Course Dashboard features Course Alerts, a revamped Bulletin Board, a Schedule of upcoming course events, and updates to your Discussions.

Assignments now come in three flavors: Grade-only (just a grade, nuthin' more), Test (creates an online test), and File (lets teacher and student interact and revise a file, document, etc.).

Lessons now let you incorporate streaming media right from the lesson content thanks to our new files setup.

Discussions can now be course-wide or pinned to particular Lessons.

Tests feature two new question types: True/False and Matching. They're also created via "test" type assignments.

The course Calendar is now a tab right on the course page and feeds upcoming events into the course Dashboard.

Reporting features the Performance Dashboard and an enhanced Change Log.


Free file storage—including hosting, bandwidth, and streaming—included with every pricing plan, with extra storage available for $2.50 per GB per month.

Increased file upload sizes throughout Populi for all your users.

New large file uploader lets faculty and Admins upload files up to 2 GB in size.

Video files automatically encoded into multiple formats optimized for playback on multiple kinds of devices.


We updated the Populi API to allow Single Sign-on from your own custom web services.

Via the API, you can also pass information into Populi via your own customized inquiry form.

ISIR importer now orders imported ISIRS based on Processed Date.

Plus the usual plethora of minor visual tweaks, bugfixes, and performance optimizations.

File storage and streaming media

Back when we released our update to Populi Financial Aid, we also changed how Populi handles files. It's been a low-key update thus far, but our new files setup opens up a ton of new possibilities for our customers—including hosting and streaming video right from Lessons and Tests in your Populi courses. We're also updating our pricing plans: each one will include a generous chunk of free file storage with the option to add more as you need it.

The old way and the new way

Files include everything from your personal document storage to the syllabi you upload to courses to your profile pictures. Previously, your files lived on our own servers, but this proved too limiting:

  • We had to limit the size and quantity of files our customers could upload.
  • You could only upload or download files. If you wanted to stream, say, an MP3 or video, you just couldn't—even if it were small enough to upload in the first place!
  • We didn't have the resources to make our files setup accommodate where we want to take Populi.

The kind of file hosting we've been wanting for Populi is two things: A) surprisingly complicated and B) not one of our core competencies. It's surprisingly complicated, for instance, to enable media streaming that plays on enough devices—PCs, Macs, iPads, Android phones, etc.— to make it at all useful. If you want to do anything more than store and serve files, you're getting into outlandish territory for a college software company—our specialties are software and support.

So we took up with Amazon Web Services's S3 cloud storage. AWS gives us access to Amazon's cavernous servers, economies of scale, global reach, and some excellent tools we didn't want to spend years developing ourselves (more on that in a minute). We also reconfigured our backups to make use of Rackspace's cloud hosting services. Amazon and Rackspace are two of the top cloud service providers, with better than 99.99% uptime and reliability. When it comes to files in Populi, we're more than happy to hitch up to those wagons.

So now, when you look up a student, Populi makes a few calls to Amazon and retrieves their profile picture, files stored in their Activity Feed, documents attached to their application's custom fields, and so on. When you upload a document to a course, it lodges on Amazon's servers and a backup copy takes up residence at Rackspace. It's a great, reliable setup that capitalizes on the expertise, tools, and infrastructure of two of the industry's best cloud storage services.

But that's all on the back end, and from what our customers can tell after two months, nothing much has changed at all...

Here's what's coming soon: Bigger file uploads and media streaming

Alongside our upcoming refresh of course instances, we're going to unlock even more of what our new files setup can do for our customers. Gone is our old 32 MB limit—we're upping it to 2 GB*. Effectively, this now makes Populi a viable option for hosting video and audio files, which can be pretty gigantic.

But what's more, we're also taking advantage of Amazon's CloudFront Content Delivery Network, which will enable embedded media streaming right from your Populi courses. Here's how it works: When you upload a video lecture, it goes to Amazon's S3 cloud servers (and gets backed up to Rackspace). It's next encoded with different resolutions, bit rates, and formats, optimizing them for the wide variety of devices your students might use to watch it—including iPads, iPhones, Macs, and PCs. Meanwhile, Amazon will put its numerous U.S. and overseas data centers to work. When one of your students streams the lecture, Amazon will cache it at their nearest data center, thereby increasing its speed and availability. In other words, if you have foreign students in Japan watching a lecture you uploaded in North Carolina, Amazon's worldwide reach optimizes everything on the back end to make it play smoothly and quickly.


We'll be including a certain amount of file storage free with every Pricing Plan. Small comes with 10GB, Medium gets 50GB, and Large features 100GB. Additional gigabytes will cost $2.50 per month. Our Pricing page and Terms of Service have the details.

Here's what you get for that $2.50:

  • Bigger file uploads
  • Multiple format encoding for video files
  • Storage and backups on Amazon and Rackspaces's world-class cloud offerings
  • Optimized streaming and bandwidth baked in
  • It's all integrated with Populi—there's no setup required to start using it!

That $2.50 will be charged on a pro-rata basis—that is, you'll only pay for what you use above your Plan's built-in storage. So, if you upload a 50 Mb file in the last week of a given month, that'd only cost about three cents. Account Admins can monitor how much file storage they're using at any time, and your storage charge, if any, will be itemized on your monthly invoice.

To our current customers, based on your current file storage, no one will need to pay more—everyone is well below their Plan's file storage allocation.

The long and the short of it

No one else offers anything like this, especially not for this price**—media hosting and streaming automatically integrated with your Online Learning software (which, in turn, is integrated with your SIS and Billing software). We think this is a great addition to Populi and a huge step forward for what's available for small schools who want to get serious about online learning.

* 1 gigabyte equals 1 billion bytes.

**We looked, we asked around, we did research... and just like our SIS competitors, the other companies out there A) won't cough up their pricing and B) require some IT elbow grease to make it work for your school. This assertion is based chiefly on anecdotes from customers who've considered some of these other systems.

Dig in

We originally built Populi to help a local college replace what small schools typically have to settle for: a creaky old system with Word and Excel tacked on to plug the holes. Since then, lots of other schools have signed on, most of which left another system to get going with us. One way to look at us is as a business that replaces other software.

And if we’ve learned anything from replacing software, it’s that 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. Policies and workflows that Populi probably transgresses.

Some of this is because Populi obviates the need for these old policies and workflows. In other cases, it gives you a round hole where your old software made you use square pegs. And other times, Populi introduces the "proper" way to do things where previously you had to just kinda, y'know, wing it.

Whatever the case, we've found that Populi can disrupt how a college runs itself. Online registration might do away with your enrollment process for incoming freshmen. Your approach to billing could differ from what we intended with tuition schedules. That old "submit grades" spreadsheet just ain’t the same as our gradebook. Bookstore just might be the first real inventory system you've used. And so on...

Populi just isn't what you're currently using, and it's probably gonna rub up against how you're used to running things. So, our exhortation to prospective customers: during the sales process, just dig in!

We'll even give you the shovels...

  • Nick and Joseph will do as many live demos as you need.
  • We’re liberal with logins to our demo site—which has the same codebase as our customers’ sites and the same access to our help desk. Get your faculty and staff to try it out, too.
  • Ask lots of questions. Ask about the big stuff ("What do you mean by Accounting?"), the seemingly-little stuff ("What does the course catalog mean by 'credits'?"), the technically-arcane stuff ("What's your approach to server replication and redundancy?")—and everything in between.
  • Nick and Joseph will answer as many phone calls as you can dial and as many emails as you can type. And if you ever stump them, they’ll find someone else here who can help. We want you to be well-informed.

Dig in! Beyond finding out what Populi does (or does better, or does different), you'll get a sense of where your school has been formed by your current software—and where Populi might hit your pressure points. Of course, we trust that Populi will do a better job for your school than whatever you're using now—in everything from the software to the security to the support. But we simply want you to make the best decision you possibly can, and that includes knowing about the potential sticking points.