What happens to my password?

We hash it. Next question?

Well, what's hashing?

Hashing a password involves shoving it through a one-way algorithm that makes it incomprehensible and indecipherable. Here's what happens:

You get your Populi welcome email and click the link to log in for the first time. After choosing your very strong, mixed capital and lower-case alphanumeric password, you save it and log in for the first time. Once you submit that password, Populi runs it through an algorithm that turns it into complete gobbledygook composed of dozens of characters, and then saves that nonsense. The next time you log in, you enter your password, the algorithm hashes it, and checks whether that hash matches the stored nonsense. If it does, Populi lets you in.

The algorithm in question is a one-way algorithm; that is, you cannot then enter the nonsense characters and "reverse engineer" the true password. Were someone somehow able to get the nonsense and plug it in to the algorithm, the algorithm would hash the nonsense into even more nonsense.

That's also why, if you ever forget your password, you can't ever ask us for it. We only saved the hashed nonsense, and so all we could send you is the hashed nonsense—not that we'd even do that. Rather, we have Populi send you a link to reset your password, where the whole process repeats: you submit a password and Populi saves some hashed nonsense. Even if your new password differs from the old by only one character, the algorithm generates a totally new hash.

Password hashing is a pretty important security measure, one of many that Populi incorporates. Even if someone broke in and stole all the hashed passwords... well, that and a dollar would get him a cup of coffee. Not even we can unscramble what the algorithm scrambles.

Nonetheless, you should still be really careful with your password. Don't tell anyone else what it is, don't leave it around on a sticky note, don't email it to yourself. Just remember it and keep it in your head... but if you forget it, you can always reset it.

National League for Nursing Education Summit 2009

Isaac Grauke, our CEO, and Janet Sellars, our Business Development rep, are en route to Philadelphia, PA for the National League for Nursing Education Summit 2009. They'll be in Booth 217 in the exhibitor space, and when they're not showing off Populi (and our new online learning features), Isaac was hoping to tuck into a cheesesteak or three. Our CEO digs those peppers and onions.

The Summit covers, as you might imagine, issues in nursing education, an enterprise in which are engaged institutions like community colleges, hospitals, and medical schools, as well as a considerable number of  smaller, dedicated nursing colleges. Distance education, accreditation, and national competency standards are among the interlocking issues nursing educators have to contend with nowadays.

And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that Populi, being a Student Information System and Learner Management System in one, is a great fit for nursing colleges. Online learning delivers your courses to all your students, near and far, while  numerous information and reporting tools improve any school's institutional effectiveness. If you're at the Summit, come meet Isaac and Janet at Booth 217 (and if not, have a look around here and see if you'd like a demo).

New Populi Release: Enhanced Course Cloning, By-Degree Transcripts, Speed Increases, and...

The Populi development team put in some overtime last night, taking the application down for about nine minutes in the wee, wee hours to release the newest update.

You probably noticed when you first logged in: we have a new look for our login screen. Beyond that, we improved course cloning—now the instructor can clone courses, and can clone different elements from different terms (as in, "this term's assignments and that term's reading list"). There's a new option to show by-degree GPA's on transcripts, should your school need it (just contact us to flip that switch). And under the hood, an across-the-board speed increase in how we deliver pages to your browser; this will really help our users when they have to use a slower internet connection.

Oh, and one more thing...

Course management features.

Populi can now effectively handle your college's online learning programs with the addition of tests, lessons, and forums. Online testing features include question-creation, automatic grading for certain question types, partial-credit options, time limits, images, and more. Lessons feature a WYSIWYG content editor, lesson-specific links and files, assignments... and forums, which are open to faculty and students, and which also integrate with the course Performance Dashboard when it comes time for professors to evaluate their students.

Of course, the new features are integrated with Populi's other course management features like assignments, gradebooks, and cloning & syncing.

With the addition of the new course features, Populi now incorporates into one program a breadth of features that usually requires three or four different software packages.

And, as usual, numerous minor enhancements, patches, security upgrades, and bugfixes accompanied the big-ticket items on this release. Users can read a thorough list of the new release features in the online help system (just look for the September 10, 2009 Release post in the “Release Notes” forum). And, as always, please feel free to contact us with your questions and comments.

Replacing Bad Info With Good

When we bring on a new college, we import their databases into Populi. And during the data import, we get a good look at what the college staff has had to deal with for the last few years. Grade reports and transcripts with different grades for the same course. Incorrectly-calculated GPAs. A student's name misspelled four different ways. And any number of other basic information problems.

It reminds us why we got into this business in the first place, because the vast majority of these problems are fundamentally software problems. Colleges, regardless of their size, have to rely on their software—because college information is just intrinsic to how a school moves a student through their education. And some—a lot, really—of the software just isn't reliable. It either wasn't built for the job or is just too complex to do the job simply.

Judging by our conversations with customers, and our experiences with migrating their data into Populi, homegrown systems and databases pose a particular challenge to college management. Beyond any problems with the data structure itself (there's a reason that there are Master's degrees in database management), there's the usability problem: without a well-designed interface to get the data into the database, data quality inevitably suffers. To give a small example, if a phone number entry field doesn't automatically "scrub" inputs of non-numeric characters, you get phone numbers like 208-+96-&83p0. There are bigger problems: if there's more than one place to enter a GPA, how easy is it to type 3.29 in one place and 2.39 in another? And how easy is it to not notice that when you have thirty more GPAs to enter?

We built Populi to head off these problems in the first place. From the database structure to the unified interface, Populi is designed to promote data quality. But one thing we were (and are) pleasantly surprised by—and our customers, too—was that in importing data from lower-quality programs and databases, we end up "repairing" a college's data. Are certain people duplicated? We'll keep the right one. Are transcripts showing non-catalog courses? We'll correct that. Are GPAs just not adding up? We'll clean up the numbers. Because in fitting data into Populi's database, there's just no room for these sorts of errors.

So our customers don't just end up with their data in a new program—their data is now more accurate, accessible, and useful than it was before. And that simply puts them in a better position to serve their students.

An Article That Says A Lot of it For Us

Although this Campus Technology article has somewhat larger institutions in view, it's a pretty good summary of the benefits that web-based software like Populi brings to small colleges. The only thing "off-note" it strikes is the title: "IT on Demand: The Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing in Higher Education"—it doesn't really mention the cons (in part because, I would submit, cons are rather hard to come by) so much as it exhorts colleges to "Look at what's most important to your school and how technology will help you reach those goals."

By that metric, we've found that Populi is a great fit for small colleges and the different situations they find themselves in: pursuing accreditation, getting a better grip on their information, expanding their online education presence, reducing infrastructure costs... to say nothing of simply better serving their students, faculty, and staff.

Visible puts the API to good use

Shane Flynn of Visible School just put the College Calendar up on their website using Populi's API (Application-Program Interface). It's a smart way to distribute some pretty important info to the folks who need to know about it.

In past years—that is, pre-Populi—important, college-wide events (Add-Drop Dates, Orientation, Student and Staff Hang Out Time, and so on) had to be entered on the Visible’s shared calendar, and then again on the college website. Shane told us, “Updating the calendar on the website has always been one of the things I dreaded every year. [It was] just a tedious job with a lot of room for error.”

This go-round, Shane had something new to work with. Visible was already using the Populi Calendar's standard School Calendar; to get it on the website, he spent a few hours with the API one afternoon—and it was up. The time he spent working with the API was a good investment, because future term calendars will automatically display as events are created. “Now when the academic office enters dates into the school calendar, the changes are automatically reflected on the website,” Shane said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

The API is good for work-a-day applications like Visible's—they’d next like to put their course catalog online. It also lends itself to advanced data queries, integration with other software packages, and some flashier projects. We used it for Populi's iPhone app, for instance.

We're looking forward to seeing what else our customers think up for it. If you’d like to start working with it, just contact us and we’ll get you the documentation. Down the line, we’re planning some API discussion forums and help content—not to mention further enhancements to the API itself so it keeps pace with the new features we’re gonna be adding to Populi.