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."

Google Apps dropping support for some browsers August 1

Google recently announced that they'll be dropping Google Apps support for older browsers on August 1:

As of August 1st, we will discontinue support for the following browsers and their predecessors: Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, and Safari 3. In these older browsers you may have trouble using certain features in Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Docs and Google Sites, and eventually these apps may stop working entirely.

If there's one thing we always jump up and down about, it's that you should keep your browser updated. Browser updates improve security and functionality, and as more and more of our work moves to the web, this is more and more of a crucial issue. You could say we're pleased with Google's decision in this area because of the incremental improvement it may help bring to the web as a whole.

So, if you're using Google Apps for Education (with which we integrate, in case you didn't know), you'll need to make sure you're running an up-to-date version of a supported browser on August 1. That's about seven weeks away! To give you a leg up:

(Since we're giving you a leg up, we're not providing a link to download Internet Explorer... though we do support IE8 and IE9)

Our new Financial Aid features

In the wee hours of Wednesday, June 8, we released our overhaul of Populi Financial Aid into the wild after months of development, testing, and refinement. The new features (together with the U.S. Department of Ed's proprietary EdExpress software) will let your Financial Aid office handle the entire aid process—everything from importing ISIRs to managing aid applications to batch disbursement of funds. We previewed the new stuff in some recent posts; here's a summary of what we just released:

Navigation overhaul

All of Populi Financial has been moved over to the new tab-based layout, which clarifies the navigation (and works better on mobile devices).

Aid applications

We built out aid applications so your aid office can track FAFSA data for each applicant, attach files to applications, and interact with student applicants from the application or via email. Students can upload files, ask questions, and accept or decline awards.

ISIRs imports

The new ISIRs importer converts the gobbledygook text file into all kinds of useful information for your school. FAFSA data automatically creates aid applications. Updated files plug new data right into existing apps. You can even create new Prospects if you receive an ISIRs file for someone you haven't heard of before.

New workflows and reports

Use Populi Financial Aid to track Federal Work Study awards. Create batch disbursements and aid refunds. Automate your disbursement schedules for the entire aid year. A new academic progress report lets you find students in trouble. Existing reports have been combined and redesigned to give you a wider, more comprehensive look at your school's Financial Aid data.

Other stuff

As usual, we took the opportunity to work in some bugfixes and performance improvements. We've made some architecture changes that will enable us to do a lot of cool things with future development.

And Financial Aid now has its own forum in the Populi help desk.

Coming Soon: a refresh for Populi Financial Aid

Some big updates are coming to Populi Financial in a few weeks. In addition to moving Financial over to our simpler, cleaner layout (which works great on mobile devices), we're expanding Populi's Financial Aid capabilities. Soon, you'll be able to:

  • Download ISIRs and automatically integrate the wealth of information they collect about prospects, students, and their parents
  • Manage financial aid awards at the year level
  • Automate batch disbursements at the Academic Term level
  • Automatically calculate Pell awards
  • Let students and prospects view and interact with their financial aid applications
  • Let students and prospects accept and decline awards online

Here's an overview of what's coming to Populi Financial:

Billing & Accounting

No big surprises in Billing and Accounting—we're simply updating them to the tabbed layout.

Financial Aid

Financial Aid, on the other hand, will look quite different.

Currently, Financial Aid is organized under Current (which shows Alerts, Disbursements, and Aid Applications), Reporting (which shows Aid by Year/Term, Disbursements, and 1098-Ts), and Settings (Application Components and Award Types). This reflects our earlier approach to Financial Aid as, primarily, as simply a way to pay down student balances in Billing.

After the upcoming release, Financial Aid will be organized under Awards, Aid Applications, Reporting, and Settings.


The new Awards tab will track awarded aid by year and student (effectively replacing the old Aid by Year and Aid by Term reports). It will also give you more useful tools for tracking Disbursements (including aid refunds) and enable Batch processing for awards and refunds.

Aid Applications

Aid Applications, once covered by a single report, now get a dedicated tab. In addition to the Aid Applications tracking tool, there's a new interface for Application Questions, which lets your Financial Aid staff interact with students puzzling over parts of their application.


In Reporting, you'll find Academic Progress and 1098-Ts. Academic Progress will replace Financial Aid Alerts and give you filtering tools to quickly find any students who've run afoul of any GPA or Credits/Hours requirements. 1098-Ts, of course, will be as simple as ever, with some improvements to how it collects and reports the relevant data.


Settings will be expanded. In addition to Application Components and Award Types , you'll be able to create Aid Classifications and Aid Year Schedules. Aid Classifications are "templates" which automatically add certain data and application components to your financial aid applicants. Aid Year Schedules let you set up batch disbursements set up for your Academic Years, allowing different schedules by Classification and Award Type.

Student Profiles

To accommodate the new functionality, we're giving the Financial tab on student profiles a new Financial Aid tab (and making some according changes on By Term). The new tab is devoted to Financial Aid information and summarizes Awards and Applications by year. It lets view all aspects of the student's (or prospect's!) aid application, manually manage disbursements,  and even print award letters. Students can come here to interact with their financial aid application—to ask questions, review their app, and accept or decline awards.

Of course, we're still hard at work on the new features, and so some of what's pictured here may change. But you get the general idea—soon you'll be able to use Populi (together with proprietary FSA* software like EDExpress) to manage the entire Financial Aid process for your students, from application all the way to disbursement.

We'll be following up with some more posts and some videos explaining the new workflows as we count down to the release.

*That is, Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. It's a necessary evil, unfortunately.