Simplicity

Our tagline reads, "College Management Made Simple"... because we believe simplicity in software is a virtue. Simplicity doesn't necessarily mean that things are just left out; it has more to do with what we include and why. If we're considering a feature that everyone will use all the time contra some feature that a few users might use some of the time, our development decision is pretty simple to make. "Feature bloat" has bogged down many an otherwise fine program that, for some reason, sought to be all things to all people. We aim to build and deliver useful, usable software—because we want to do one thing, and do it really well.

That one thing happens to be a fairly complex, tightly interwoven bundle of tasks: college management. We're in this business because most software just adds to the complexity—not just in its feature bloat, but also in its approach to the "interwoven" part. But as our client colleges have found, and are still finding out, college management can be done with one program, and it can be done better for a much lower cost.

We have some features coming that we're pretty excited about, and that you'll be pretty excited about, too. We're going to be quiet about specifics for the moment, but suffice it to say that they'll expand Populi's ability to manage all of your college's information with less software and greater ease and simplicity.

In the meantime, two menus from some eateries in New York City with simple philosophies. John's Pizzeria on Bleecker makes what is simply the finest pizza anywhere; Ninth Street Espresso upends what people think of coffee on a regular basis. Both eschew the proliferation of options and sauces and extras that typically clutter the competition's menus and kitchens. Both do it like no one else can do it. And both do gangbusters business.

Trouble Logging In?

Some of our customers had trouble logging in yesterday. We fixed the problem, and everyone should have no trouble today. But, in case any Populi users experience any login problems today, we have an article up in our help system that tells you about some settings you can change in your browser. Just log in to support.populiweb.com with your regular Populi login information, and the article will make itself plain to you.

We're really sorry for the hassle this has caused, and we thank you for your patience.

New Populi Release: Multiple Tabs, To-do's, Admissions Enhancements

The Populi Development team is pleased to announce that the new release went live last night. Now you can use Populi in multiple browser tabs--a tremendous leap forward for day-to-day usability. Additionally, users now have built-in To-Do lists--assign tasks to yourself or others, complete with due dates.

In Admissions, new enhancements include the Timeline View for Applications, which retrieves applications, applicants, and components based on your own custom timeframe, application status, and degree--it's somewhat like a mini-Data Slicer for Admissions. You can then email or export the prospects that return from your query.  Also in Admissions, we've added Counselors--assign particular prospects to individual members of your Admissions group. Counselors can then focus on those prospects via the My Prospects view of their Profile. You can match Prospects and Counselors via the prospective info fields in the Prospect's Admissions view, or in the Admissions Staff's My Prospects view.

Numerous enhancements and patches 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 newest post in the "Release Notes" forum). As always, please feel free to contact us with your questions and comments.

The Small College & The Hosted SIS

How Visible School got more for its students, more for its staff, and more for its buck by going with Populi

Shane Flynn had his hands full. As the IT Director for Visible School, a music and worship arts college with just under 100 students located in Memphis, Tennessee, his duties were aptly summed up in the oft-uttered phrase, “If it has wires, give it to Shane.” Computers, servers, internet connections, the college website—even the copy machine—all fell under Flynn’s purview. But in addition to managing the college’s hardware and recording technology needs—a considerable workload at a music college—he had to oversee multiple home-grown student information systems.

“It was like a huge anvil sitting on my shoulders,” said Flynn. “We tried to build a fully-functional SIS three times, but it didn’t work out. The developers encountered all kinds of unforeseen challenges, so we were stuck entering the information into spreadsheets—by hand.”

Visible School was founded in 2000 by Ken Steorts, a founding member of the popular rock band Skillet. Visible is designed from the ground up to prepare creative young Christian men and women for skilled, relational ministry through the development and exploration of their musical talents. Like many small colleges, Visible is intent on developing its community and students, and focuses its resources accordingly. The budget for expensive information software, therefore, wasn’t to be had. “Any SIS software that we could have installed off-the-shelf would have been in the high five, or usually six figures,” said Flynn.

So Visible made it happen with a patchwork of spreadsheets, Word documents, and other third-party software. But when they discovered Populi, a web-based, fully-hosted college management system designed for small and mid-size colleges, they realized it was the right solution. Flynn said, “We were looking at other schools and what they offered to their students in terms of technology. We’re small, so we were taking a closer look at web-based solutions because of the lower implementation costs and not needing a new license for every computer.”

Populi took the low costs further. With no charges for licensing, implementation, or training, Visible got data migration, everyday customer support, and new features and upgrades included in the monthly, per-student price. Visible signed on, and after a two-month implementation, the college staff and students incorporated Populi into their everyday lives.

Visible began realizing immediate benefits from Populi. Course registration, for instance, went from an unwieldy paper process to a quick, streamlined, online service. Students formerly submitted paper forms, which the registrar then assembled by hand to make up course rosters and schedules. “Nothing too complicated, but it was time-consuming,” reported Flynn. But with Populi, “It was amazing. We gathered the students into a room and spent a few minutes explaining the system to the students.” After that, they logged in, and in a few minutes accomplished what previously took a few days. “The students were really excited with it. They were almost as excited as the staff.”

Populi also improved Visible’s end-of-term tasks, which their old solutions just made difficult. Grading had been a particular problem. “We tried stand-alone gradebook software, but it never worked the way we needed it to,” Flynn remembered. Printing the grades and matching them with student records and transcripts was a particularly long and “horribly time-consuming” process. “We’d call it a ‘grading party’ to make it more bearable for the staff. Re-entering grades into transcripts by hand took 20 people 8 hours each to get it done. And the potential for errors was huge.” But Populi transformed Visible’s “grading party” into a “Populi Party”. The faculty gathered together and finalized their courses, which automatically integrated the built-in course gradebooks with grade reports and transcripts. And then they were done, in a fraction of the time that the job once took. “After that, we had cake and just hung out and relaxed, enjoying the fact that the job was finished.”

As Visible continued using Populi, Flynn found that other burdens were being lifted from the college. “I’ll be honest. I wasn’t excited about the hosted solution at first. I was worried about security and not having control of the database.” But conversations with Populi staff about their devotion to security reassured him. “We didn’t have a good way to back up our data. But the Populi team was really helpful, answering questions and explaining how the database was securely stored.” With Populi keeping and backing up Visible’s data on secure servers around the country, that was one less thing for Flynn to worry about. And, he was able to put some infrastructure to better use. “We have a server that was intended for the SIS. But Populi handles all that, so now we can use it to serve our students in other ways.” Flynn set up the server to store student music assignments. “They have to write a song a week and edit it on GarageBand. They’re massive files, 1.5 GB apiece.”

With Populi handling Visible’s information needs—securely, over the web, off-site, and inexpensively—Flynn is glad that the college chose a web-based system that’s available to everyone. “For one, that’s what this generation of students is used to,” he said. And, his job is a lot easier. “It’s been a huge weight off my shoulders. I don’t need to install updates or test new releases on the server. I’ve been so happy that we went this route.”

Apps We Use

37 Signals produces great web apps with simple, elegant designs. We use their Highrise contact manager, and their  Ta-Da Lists are as good as free, online to-do lists get (Populi's already great at contacts, and we’re incorporating To-Do’s in our next major release).

Freshbooks is an online invoicing application that promises “painless billing.” Our billing man, Mark Ackerman, testifies that Freshbooks makes his job easier and Populi more efficient as a company. (Populi Billing, of course, also features invoicing that's integrated with the rest of your college's information).

Mailchimp helps us manage our various mailing lists. It has good analytic tools and a really user-friendly interface. On your end, it makes subscribing and unsubscribing very simple. It's a mass-mailing tool that hates spam as much as the rest of us do, and we use it because we believe it will make your experience with our occasional mailings much more pleasant and useful (Populi Email's seamless integration with college contacts can certainly help you with your own mass-email campaigns).

Zendesk forms the basis of our online Customer Support system. Like Mailchimp, its user interface is simple and pleasant both on your end and our end. With its ticket system, help forums (fora for those Latin speakers out there), search, and other features, it gets you help with your issues with a pretty fast turnaround time. On our end, it helps our Customer Support guys be alert and responsive to your needs--and its reporting tools help us make our help content more useful to you.

We don't just like the software; we also appreciate the thought behind them--their whole approach to software design,  customer support, transparency, accessibility, simplicity... and honesty in how they market themselves. You can read more about the approach in 37 Signals' Getting Real, which, though aimed at software companies, nevertheless contains principles readily applicable to other spheres (like higher education). When Populi got started, we had a lot of these things in mind already, if only because they are not in evidence in today's college software market. It's somewhat encouraging and exonerating to find that there are already successful companies out there who adhere to what we consider some of our core tenets. Not only does this approach produce better software, it also lets us, as a company, get to be more human and approachable in how we present ourselves.