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.

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

An update to Library and some other things

We loosed our latest release the evening of July 5th. It's a minor update with a number of tweaks and improvements to Library, ISIRs, and the Populi API.


Now you can add images to resources as well as delete resources or individual copies. Also included: automatic barcode generation for resource copies. This feature finds the next available barcode number and adds it to the copy—so it works around your existing resource copies without you needing to double-check (you can also disable the barcode generator).

To enhance Populi Library's cataloging abilities, we also built in a Z39.50 search. Now when you add a resource, Populi Library fetches an image from and other resource data from a number of public Z39.50 servers. You can specify which servers you want it to search, add new ones, and even change the order Populi will search through.

We also gave you the ability to waive a Library fine!


Our biggest update ever to the Populi API really beefs it up. Now you can:

  • Add new people and check for duplicates
  • Add and remove roles, tags, contact info, and custom info fields for anyone in the system
  • Add and retrieve Prospect information
  • Retrieve information about recently updated people
  • Request and download backup copies of your Populi data

With the new API functions, you'll be able to add people, sync your Populi people with an external directory service, and send your Populi backups to external web applications to save and encrypt however you like. It also paves the way for us to do some other interesting things down the road...


We added CPS transaction numbers to ISIRs. This information lets the Populi ISIRs importer keep your data in better order. For instance, they prevent you from importing older data. We also organized the display of ISIRs data in various places by the CPS transaction number. This accompanies a number of other, more behind-the-scenes ISIRs improvements.

Additionally, this update is accompanied by some interface niggles and a number of bug fixes, tweaks, arcane performance changes, and so on.

Our own approach to outsourcing software (or, Sticking to what you're good at)

We recently posited that it makes a lot of sense for small schools to outsource IT-intensive assets like their information systems. We think so not just because our service lets you do that, but because it really does save a small college a lot of time, money, and software migraines. And besides, colleges exist to educate, not build software. Small organizations—colleges and software companies, for instance—should stick to their core competencies. It's a key part of embracing constraints.

At Populi, our core competency is providing college management software as a service. We do one thing (though, that one thing does a lot of different things), and it would be foolish to spread ourselves thin designing other software or maintaining other services.

We know this firsthand. Back in the emsi days, a programmer built the first version of the Populi help system. It consisted simply of a custom search that scanned a hand-coded, wiki-style knowledge base.

This worked okay... for a little while. The search did only one thing—it searched—and it still required our maintenance. And writing in a wiki knowledge base was about as much fun as getting caned with a bamboo rod.

More importantly, when Populi got going as an independent company, we knew a lot more about our customer support needs. We needed not just a searchable knowledge base, but also a way to efficiently channel support requests, embed training videos, get support metrics—and make support comprehensible to our users.

Now, we could have devoted one of our developers to expanding our custom search to do these other tasks. But that would have been to the considerable detriment of Populi itself. So, jettisoning the custom approach, we signed up with Zendesk. While Zendesk costs money—money we watch go out the door every month—those are dollars well-spent:

  • We don't have to divert people, time, and money away from Populi to build a support system.
  • Zendesk has a great API, so it integrates seamlessly with Populi—better, even, than our in-house custom search did.
  • Our customers get access to a great support tool—we believe Zendesk enhances the service we offer and helps us make good on some of our core company values.
  • Zendesk provides updates and support for their software, helping us improve what we offer our customers with zero effort on our part.

We've also outsourced* our project management and related tasks to the folks at 37signals, our accounting to Xero, and our email to Google Apps. While none of these are customer-facing like Zendesk, they nevertheless help Populi run a lot more smoothly, which frees us up to do what we need to do. It's safe to say that we pretty much can't live without them.

Sometimes, however, we find ourselves going in-house after using other software. For instance, we once used Freshbooks for invoicing, but now we route our customers to our in-Populi payment system. Now, Freshbooks is a great product,** and it really fit the bill for a time. But the same things that drove us to outsource other things—reduced cost and a better experience for our customers—drove us, in this case, to roll our own:

  • We were asking our customers to use Populi for their work, to view an invoice in Freshbooks, and make payment by yet some other means. This needed streamlining.
  • We couldn't offer automatic payments—something that's expected of web-based software.
  • We spent too much time manually creating invoices and troubleshooting problems; our new system cuts down on that, for instance, by showing you which students you were charged for.
  • There was too much room for manual error; for instance, we had to re-enter invoice amounts into our online banking every month in order to do ACH drafts.
  • The guts of the system were already there when we added online payments. It didn't take a lot of work to turn that into our own invoicing-and-payment system.

This post is subtitled, "Sticking to what you're good at"—both our use of Zendesk and our move away from Freshbooks were both done with this in mind. Zendesk makes Populi better by making it super-simple for our customers to get support. Scooting in-house for invoicing helped us simplify our customers' bill-paying experience, and gave us another opportunity to improve what we do.

In other words, we certainly don't preach outsourcing for outsourcing's sake. Outsource when it makes sense to—and, as we've already said, we think it makes sense for small schools to outsource their information systems (to us, hopefully!).

* Lemme just get this out of the way: when we say "outsourcing", we hope you know that we'll NEVER outsource development or support. Put another way, never outsource your core competencies!

** Our own Mark Ackerman says that Freshbooks "is nearly flawless."