From Scraped-together to All Together: Visible Music College and Populi

Visible Music College Campus

Visible Music College (formerly Visible School) was one of Populi’s first customers—and they’re still with us!. They came aboard in 2008, and we checked in with them in 2009 to see how it was going. This article reflects our preoccupation at the time: how web-based software could benefit small colleges who were used to scraping things together. This case study is something of a time capsule, but everything in it still holds true.

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 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.”