Big files, better assignments, new question types

We're in the home stretch preparing and testing our next release. Here are three videos showing some of the improvements we're making to course instances:

Our improvements to files necessitated a new file uploader:

Assignments will let teacher and student have a conversation about the student's work:

Online tests will feature True/False and Matching question types:

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.

Price

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.

Coming soon: new stuff for course instances

In just a few weeks, we're planning to release an overhaul of course instances. From a complete navigation overhaul to some brand-new features to a second look at things we've been doing all along, the upcoming release will make courses a lot more intuitive, useful, and flexible. Have a look at some of the things we're doing:

Navigation


Courses are getting our new tab-based navigation, which we're slowly rolling out to all of Populi. As you can see from the screenshot, courses will feature the same basic items—assignments, lessons, gradebook, etc.—and certain actions (finalizing, for instance) will be subsumed under the appropriate tabs. Additionally, who you are will affect where you land when you navigate to a course—registrars and Admins will arrive at the Info tab, and students and faculty will come to the new course Dashboard.

Dashboard

The course Dashboard tells faculty and students what's happening now and what's coming up via Alerts, Schedule, Discussions, and a retooled Bulletin Board. Alerts notifies students about upcoming tests, assignments, and currently-available lessons, and informs faculty about test questions that need to be graded. Schedule draws from the new course calendar and displays upcoming course events (due dates, special meeting times, etc.). Discussions summarizes recent activity on course discussions. And the course Bulletin Board is getting updated with file uploads, comments, and a revamped interface.

Online Learning

A few new things are in store for online learning. Tests feature new question types—Matching and True/False. Discussions can now be course-wide or attached to a specific Lesson—and you can also attach files and images to comments and replies. And we're making improvements that will make video embedding in Lessons better than ever.

Assignments

We've created three assignment types to simplify how you use them in your courses. Test assignments will automatically create a corresponding online test. File assignments feature a feed of comments and file uploads so teacher and student can interact about the assignment—they can even pass an essay back and forth with revisions and corrections. And regular assignments will simply be a graded assignment—perfect for things like completed readings.

Calendar

The new course calendar lets faculty, registrars, and academic admins add and update course events. Upcoming events display on the course Dashboard, and course calendars are seamlessly integrated with the corresponding calendars on Google Apps.

Miscellany

The new reporting tab features the Performance Dashboard and the course Change Log. Cloning and syncing are getting a minor retooling. And, we're also scrubbing the iTunes U integration. Few customers used it (it's probably Apple's clumsiest, most aggravating product)... and we have something much better in store.

Nonsense-free pricing

...a tale told with bullet lists

Simple as we think our pricing is, the college software industry seems to have primed our market to think that we've just gotta be hiding something... or lying. Some typical exchanges:

  • Us: Populi has no upfront costs.
    College: Okay, how much do you charge for implementation?
  • Populi charges per active student.
    What do you charge for alumni?
  • We do not charge for software updates.
    How much do you charge for new versions of the software?
  • The entire program is included in the price.
    What's the charge for extra modules?
  • For one price, everyone at your school can use it.
    How much for additional licenses?

We get these questions because almost no one in this business makes their pricing clear or even public. Just look on any education software website and try to find a number—any number—indicating what it might cost. Most of them want you to trade a bunch of institutional information with them for a "free, customized quote". Our customers who've moved over from other systems (and prospects evaluating others alongside Populi) tell us that even these "customized" quotes are opaque and deliberately obfuscating. So when schools look at our pricing—which tells you what you get and what it costs—previous experience has trained them to read between the lines. This industry has made small schools cagey about just taking us at our word.

So, we'd like to present to you a basic summary of what's covered on our Pricing page and in our Terms of Service. Here's what's in between the lines, as it were:

  • We have three pricing plans (Small, Medium, and Large) aimed at different-sized institutions in the small college market.
  • Each plan includes a monthly Base Rate (which covers unlimited faculty, staff, and so on) and a per-student price.
  • By "student" we mean "active students". Active students are only those who were enrolled or auditing a course for more than seven calendar days in a given month.
  • We charge you this month for last month's active students. So, your September 1 bill includes your base rate and whatever active students you had in August.
  • The base rate and per-student price are all that we charge you (well, there's also a late fee if you don't pay your bill). Between them, they cover absolutely everything that we offer with Populi.*
  • That includes the software, support, infrastructure, implementation, maintenance, upgrades, and whatever else you can think of.
  • We integrate with some other services which might cost you money. We don't charge you—they do—we simply provide you with the integration tools.*
  • We don't charge you to set up the system, train your users, provide support, maintain historical info, back up your data, add new features, store your alumni, let your students log in... and whatever else the other companies nickel and dime you for.
  • We just don't! We're not out to get you. We're not sneaking stuff in. We're not making stuff up.

In other words, there's nothing between the lines.

Here's an example of how our pricing works:

In April, you have 100 enrolled students and auditors for the whole month. On May 6, your Summer Term begins and 90 students go home (25 of whom graduated and are now alumni). Ten students stick around for Summer Term to make sure they're caught up for Fall Term. You're on the "Small" pricing plan ($199 Base Rate, $7 per Active Student).

  • Your May 1 invoice, which charges for April's students, comes to $899—$199 + ($7 x 100).
  • Your June 1 invoice, which charges for May's students, comes to $269—$199 + ($7 x 10). Not even a penny changes hands for those alumni.
  • In April, you have full access to everything Populi offers.
  • In May, you have full access to everything Populi offers.
  • For that matter, in June, you have full access to everything Populi offers.

Of course, you might still have questions. We understand, and we're happy to tell you what you want to know—about our pricing, or just about anything else about Populi. We don't have anything to hide.

* So you know, we're considering some "premium" options that'd cost extra. We, of course, promise to be clear and upfront about them, too... but there's nothing concrete to announce at this point.