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.

Zendesk: Goodwill in a Business Model

A bunch of new stuff with Zendesk, the SaaS helpdesk we use as our online help system, this past Monday the 17th. In addition to some new features, a redesigned website, and $6 million in new VC cash, Zendesk debuted a new pricing scheme. To sum it up in their words, "Previously you had to allocate agents in lumps. That's history."

Zendesk's former pricing gave you access to the first support agent for free, and after that charged $19 per agent; however, agent access couldn't be purchased per-agent, but rather in bunches of 3, 5, 10, and so on. So, if you had, say, 6 agents, that bumped you up past the "5" bracket and into the next higher-priced bracket... for 6 agents, therefore, you paid for 4 agents you didn't have.

Their new pricing scheme is much simpler: if you're a one-man operation, you pay $9 a month. If you're bigger, $39 gets you three agents, and each additional agent after that runs you $19 apiece. There's also a more expensive, premium version with extra reporting, support, and SSL certificate hosting.

Since Zendesk now runs on per-agent pricing, Populi pays less than it used to for what is now (in light of the software enhancements) a better program. A few interesting things about that: first, in terms of customer relations, the Populi office is absolutely aglow with praise for Zendesk. We were already pleased with it (and we trust our customers also find it an easy and helpful way to get answers), and plenty happy to pay what we were paying for the service. Now they've improved the program and ding us for less money than they used to. What's  more, they didn't have to do this. The old way was working. However, they saw that it could be done better.

In one sense, a price cut probably means that their income will decrease... but only for a time. In light of the tremendous buzz the new plan has generated (and the news about the VC money helps), that price cut looks more and more like a smart, gratuitous, multilateral PR and customer relations investment. Lest that sound at all cynical, it might be better to say that this shows how Zendesk is using goodwill in their business model.