New file uploader, digital library resources, enrollment verification letters, and more

The developers have been drinking their coffee and eating their energy bars, and as a result, Populi now does dozens of new things it didn’t do a few weeks ago. Where to begin? How about with the…

New file uploader

The new file uploader lets you drag-and-drop files—up to two gigabytes in size—right into your browser window to upload them into Populi. It’s available to all users wherever you can upload files: everywhere from ID photos, activity feeds, and course assignments to applications, page layouts, and library resources (among many other places).

Of course, you can still do the whole search-for-the-file-you-want-to-upload thing, but why do that when you can do this?

Digital library resources

You can now offer digital resources through your Library. Simply upload the files to the resource, and they’ll be available for viewing and downloading to your patrons.

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Enrollment verification letters

You can now print proof of enrollment letters for your students. For that matter, your students can print them, too! To get you started, we’ve included a customizable Enrollment Verification document in Communications > Page Layouts. Contact Populi Support if you’d like us to fix up your enrollment letter layout.

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New tuition schedule options in Data Slicer

You can now use the Data Slicer to add, remove, or replace the tuition schedules for groups of students.

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PDF exports

What used to export as an .odt file—transcripts, custom statements, etc.—can now be exported as a PDF.

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A zillion other things have gotten out there over the past few weeks. If you care to find out more, have a look at our Release Notes.

Get to know us! Here’s Joel Penney…

Joel Penney isn’t much of a talker. “We hired Joel in October, 2012, and he got to work right away,” Isaac Grauke reminisces. “I still remember the first time anyone here heard him say anything. Must’ve been late March, 2013.” Toby Robinson wasn’t there when it happened, but he trusts “the guys who said he said something.” Joseph Schoolland was laughing at a cat .gif at that moment, and thinks that must have drowned out the sound of Joel’s voice. “Still haven’t heard him talking, but I’ve seen his mouth moving around lunchtime,” he comments.

2-13-15 Joel field

In one sense, Joel doesn’t have time to talk. He is utterly given over to his work as a developer. Since first taking his seat here, Joel has re-worked substantial chunks of Populi. His biggest project thus far was the stem-to-stern overhaul of Admissions; he’s also responsible for graded discussions, an ongoing rewrite of Academics, and a bunch of other things. James Hill says that Joel “naturally takes ownership of things and works them over until they’re perfect.” However self-deprecating he is when asked to describe his own work, Joel nonetheless produces really stinkin’ excellent code.

We can’t do what we do without him.

Born and raised in Eastport, Long Island, Joel lived out where the boundless subdivisions occasionally give way to pine barrens and potato fields. Tinkering came naturally to him. “As a child I liked building models. Planes, trains, automobiles. If I wasn’t doing that I was probably taking something apart and putting it back together. Toys. VCRs. Power tools. That progressed to computers, printers, cars. Few of these things had any hope of ever functioning again.”

Eventually, Joel found himself working for a small printing company, using Photoshop to tinker with wedding photos, pet portraits, and graduation pics. At that company, he was more or less the IT guy. He wrote computer scripts to automate rote tasks and was on call to fix the stupid printer when the thing inevitably broke. In 2003, he married Grace, and they soon had two children.

The interesting thing about Eastport is that it’s preposterously expensive to live there, what with the proximity to Martha Stewart and that Barefoot Contessa lady. His job being rather portable, the Penneys stuffed a U-Haul full of their things and motored it out to Moscow, Idaho. One of those things was a 550-pound laminator. It took six guys to schlep it fifty feet from the U-Haul to his back door. None of them would ever so much as touch a laminated ID card ever again.

The printing business dried up and blew away in late 2012, just about the time Populi was really, really needing a new programmer. Despite not saying anything, Joel made all the right impressions during the interview. His signing bonus was some company stock and a laying hen from Isaac’s home flock.

2-13-15 joel interior

The Penneys now have five splendid children and occupy every last square inch of an old house with high ceilings, drafty windows, and a super-weird chimney. Joel’s tinkering now involves lumber, sheetrock, and windows; unlike the days of yore, his handiwork now results in considerable improvement. Meanwhile, Grace’s kitchen features various items in states of guided fermentation—home-cured bacon, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles—and her daughters goof off gilded in her elegant needlework. Sprawled on the living room floor, Joel’s sons build things out of Legos with a meticulousness one can only assume has been inherited.

2-13-15 Joel bookshelf

It’s a humble, modest life, perfect down to the details.




We announced our current pricing back in February 2010. We’ve since supplemented that with a few optional items: SMS Emergency Notifications and File storage (the price of which has dropped several times the past couple years). As for Populi itself, well, we’ve added a thing or two, I guess. And all along we’ve held fast to the free essentials that make it all go for our customers: implementation, training, support—and, most important, our annual Christmas photos.

It recently struck us: our Pricing Page has remained all but unchanged for the past five years. Web companies commonly experiment with their pricing—adding new tiers, shuffling features around, annual subscription discounts, and so on. You could attribute this to the flexibility of web-based software; it’s simple to justify a change in price for an easily-changed product. But such changes have never even crossed our minds. Populi’s price has remained steady for five years. The service itself, on the other hand, offers vastly more than it used to. How’d that happen?

Concerning the price, we’ve never had a good reason to raise it. Every year, our infrastructure dollars have gotten us more—in terms of utility, service, and storage. We have Moore’s Law to thank for that; the popular version purports that, every 18 months or so, computing power doubles in speed and drops in price by half. In turn, that has helped us scale up and take on more schools. That spreads our overall costs over an increasing number of customers. And finally, the revenue we take in gets plowed back into our people, our company, and serving our customers. Being privately-owned, there’s no obligation to meet the preposterous financial goals of distant, disinterested investors.

Concerning the service, we’ve only ever had reasons to make it better. Our customers ask us for lots of good things that we want to give them. Some bigger schools need things we don’t quite offer yet. The new feature we just released could use refinement. And then there’s our own temperament. We’re relentlessly dissatisfied with Populi. No matter how good it is, how many features we add, or how well it all performs, there’s always some way to make it better. Now, it’s not that our work is lousy. It’s more that we’ve been given the opportunity to do this work—so why not swing for the fences?

So. We’ve never had a reason to raise the price, and have always been compelled to make Populi better. That’s worked out well for us, and I’d wager, for our customers. Schools that came aboard in 2010 are getting a lot more than they signed up for. For that matter, so are the schools who signed up in 2011, 2012… even customers who came aboard six months ago now have something better than before.

We once likened the college software scene to shopping for a car. In a market cluttered with custom tour buses and shady used cars, Populi was the dependable Toyota minivan—affordable, room for everyone, and a great warranty. Now, imagine that you bought the minivan, and every six months or so, the dealer automatically upgraded it to the next trim level. Or installed a new motor. Or gave you a sunroof. All without you paying more or having to do anything.

That’s pretty much the deal you get with Populi.

Donations from organizations, library updates, and other sundry improvements

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Some recent improvements…

Organizations can make donations

Yup, you can now record donations made by organizations. Just go to the org’s profile, click the Donations tab, and then Record a Donation. The screen includes records of all previous donations, a breakdown by fund, and the ability to print a tax receipt.

You can also now export PDF receipts in bulk from the Donations report—for both individuals and organizations.

Multitude of Library improvements

We’ve improved the way Populi handles Library holds, making it easier for your Library staff to manage your resources.

  • Populi now sets the hold expiration date when you pull the copy, rather than when the copy was simply assigned to the hold. Previously, when setting the hold expiration date based on the assignment, this frequently resulted in holds expiring before the copy was even pulled.
  • The Holds report now shows you which holds do not yet have a copy assigned to them.
  • You can also now print a hold receipt to attach to the resource copy you’ve pulled.

Additionally, we’ve added three new fields to resources:

  • Acquisition Source (an Agent)
  • Acquisition Date
  • Replacement Price
Some other items

1-20-15 DA equiv

We improved the display of equivalent courses in the Degree Audit, clarifying how a course requirement has been fulfilled by the student’s completion of an equivalent course.

Course equivalencies now impact both course and course group prerequisites. Say ENG101 and WRI101 are equivalents and ENG101 is included in the “Core” course group:

  • A student who passes WRI101 would qualify for courses that require ENG101 as a prereq
  • A student who takes WRI101 would qualify for courses that require the Core course group

On the API front, you can now upload files via the API, including to term-based custom student fields.

The Financial Aid API has several new calls:

  • getAidApplication
  • getAidApplicationForStudentAidYear
  • addAidApplication
  • editAidApplication

You can now set up Bookstore tax by ZIP code to accommodate schools in states that allow differing tax rates at the county level for online sales.



Making money on the internet

Nicholas Carlson’s recent New York Times Magazine piece, What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs, is a fine overview of Yahoo’s troubled two-year course correction. Most interesting, though, is how Carlson’s understanding of the Yahoo board comes from how he shares its assumptions.

Dynamic and wildly profitable Internet companies like Facebook and Google may get most of the attention, but Silicon Valley is littered with firms that just get by doing roughly the same thing year after year — has-beens like Ask.com, a search engine that no longer innovates but happily takes in $400 million in annual revenue, turning a profit in the process. Mayer, who is 39, was hired to keep Yahoo from suffering this sort of fate. She believed it could again become a top-tier tech firm that enjoyed enormous growth and competed for top talent.

Silicon Valley is “littered” with “has-beens” that “no longer innovate” but are nonetheless “turning a profit in the process”. Marissa Mayer was brought on as CEO so Yahoo could keep “from suffering this sort of fate”.

Generally speaking, there are only a few ways to make money on the Internet. There are e-commerce companies and marketplaces — think Amazon, eBay and Uber — that profit from transactions occurring on their platforms. Hardware companies, like Apple or Fitbit, profit from gadgets. For everyone else, though, it more or less comes down to advertising. Social-media companies, like Facebook or Twitter, may make cool products that connect their users, but they earn revenue by selling ads against the content those users create. Innovative media companies, like Vox or Hulu, make money in much the same way, except that they’re selling ads against content created by professionals. Google, which has basically devoured the search business, still makes a vast majority of its fortune by selling ads against our queries.

E-commerce and marketplaces. Gadgets. And for everyone else, advertising. These are the three ways people have figured out how to make money on the internet. If you’re not making piles of dough off one of the three of these, you’re a has-been. You’re litter.

Or, it seems, you don’t even exist.

Yet, hundreds of companies have figured out how to make money on the Internet by solving everyday business problems. They may not be innovative—they’re usually built on advances made by others. They may not be flashy—rather than absorb attention, they disappear into the background so work can get done. They may not be “dynamic and wildly profitable”—they tend towards corporate stability because their customers require steadiness and reliability. But it’s more than likely that, were their numbers made public (most such companies are like Populi—privately-held), this part of the internet economy would hold its own against the hotshot innovators whose raison d’être is to sell ads on gadgets you buy from e-commerce sites.

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2015 from Populi!

Populi Christmas 2014

From left: Adam Sentz, Josh Stevenson, James Hill, Joel Penney, Isaac Grauke, Brendan O’Donnell, Patrick Swanson, Mark Ackerman, Nick Holloway, Christian Amos, Toby Robinson, Matt Jepsen, Joseph Schoolland

From all of us to all of you, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Paul Ford, “The Group That Rules the Web”

Ellsworth Kelly: Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance III

Ellsworth Kelly: Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance III

Paul Ford, writing in The New Yorker:

The Web started out as a way to publish and share documents. It is now an operating system: a big, digital sensory apparatus that can tell you about your phone’s battery life, record and transmit your voice, manage your e-mail and your chats, and give you games to play. It can do this all at once, and with far less grand of a design than you might assume. That’s the software industry: it promises you an Ellsworth Kelly, but it delivers a  Pollock.

Jackson Pollock: Convergence


Graded discussions, course equivalencies, and Library enhancements

11-17-14 Graded disc

Concerning software releases, we’ve been busy the past few weeks…

Graded discussions

Graded discussions let you grade your students for their participation in a discussion. Here’s how it works:

  1. You create a new discussion-type assignment, and either use it to start a new discussion or link it to an existing discussion.
  2. You then have options to set up grading requirements, giving points for posting a minimum number of comments or replies, number of words posted, average peer rating—among many other criteria.
  3. If you wish, you can set the discussion to close on a certain date and time, after which Populi can auto-grade your students based on your grading requirements.
  4. The discussion assignment page presents all of your students’ discussion info—including comments and participation stats—so you can easily grade the assignment by hand if you so choose.

The grading features are a major part of a general overhaul of course discussions, which now include…

Peer rating

When you enable peer rating, students can rate one another’s comments and replies from one to five stars. You can include peer rating stats as a discussion grading requirement.

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Post first

You can now require students to post to the discussion before they can see anyone else’s comments.

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Improved comment reporting

When students report inappropriate comments, you now have better tools to handle these reports—and more accountability for the student who submits the report.

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Draft mode

If you’re not ready for students to know about an upcoming discussion—maybe it’s a surprise assignment, or perhaps you’re still working on the grading requirements—you can leave it in Draft mode. When you’re ready for it to get out there, just set it to Published.

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To get a look at everything you can do with discussions now, have a look at the Populi Knowledge Base.


Course attendance now features ID photos (like the Roster), radio buttons for attendance status, and new action links to mark all students either Present, Absent, Tardy, or Excused.

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Course equivalencies

In Academics, we added course equivalencies. Equivalencies are specified at the course catalog level. Effectively, this lets you substitute any course for any other in a student’s academic history. For example, say you make ENG101 an equivalent of WRI101:

  • Students who took WRI101 will show that they have completed a degree course requirement for ENG101 on the Degree Audit.
  • Students who took ENG101 will be able to register for a course that has WRI101 as a prerequisite.
  • Students who need to retake ENG101 can take WRI101 instead.
  • And vice-versa for all of the above…

Additionally, you can now use Course Groups as prerequisites for catalog courses. This lets you treat a group of courses as equivalent (take this course OR this other course…) when setting up prereqs.

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Library enhancements

We’ve added a bunch of little (but significant!) things to Library the past few weeks:

  • Library Staff can now place holds on behalf of patrons.
  • Additionally, they can now renew loans, even if the affected resource has a hold or is overdue.
  • You can now see the due date for each resource when checking them out to a patron.
  • If you remove a copy from circulation, any holds on it will be transferred to the next available copy.
  • When placing a hold, patrons and staff can now choose which resource copy they want.
  • Library staff can now click # of holds to see a list of all the holds for a resource, and their associated data. They can also manage which resource copy the hold is on, or cancel the hold—all from the same dialog box.
  • You can now manually pull Library resources.
  • We’ve limited the resource type drop-downs on Library search to show only the resource types you currently have entered in Library.
  • Library search results now display up to five resource copies, together with their locations and call numbers if possible. So, now you can find out if there’s a copy and where to grab it without clicking through to the copy page.
  • And finally, if you hate pressing “Enter” on your keyboard for Library (and Bookstore) searches, there’s now a Go button you can click!

11-18-14 Library search

Programmatic Partial-Credit Put-In-Order Grading

Back in Autumn, 2009 we introduced online tests with several question types. Certain types—multiple choice for example—are simple for a computer program to grade. You just tell it what the correct answer is, and if the student marks that answer, they get the credit. Other question types, however, aren’t so simple: put-in-order, for example. Different instructors have different methods and rationales for how to assign credit for a partially correct put-in-order question, so replicating how a human would grade one is no mean feat. Or so we’ve learned over the last five years.

Our first method was simple: we’d evaluate each item in turn, and if it was before or after the item that it was supposed to be before or after then it would be counted as correct.

This did a pretty good job approximating how an instructor might give partial credit by focusing on the order of items as opposed to their placement. This method stayed in place until we discovered its principal flaw. Though highly unlikely, it was possible for an incorrect response to receive 100% credit provided each item was next to at least one correct neighbor.

When an instructor brought this to our attention last Winter (over four years since we added online tests!) we quickly revised our methodology to focus on placement. This seemed like a simple, reasonable method: imagine a teaching assistant lining up an answer key next to the student’s response and marking incorrect any item that didn’t match the key.

In reality, though, this sometimes proved much harsher than an actual professor would be, especially if the question had a larger number of options.

In fact, not long after the update an instructor showed us a rather harshly-graded 25-item put-in-order question; Populi counted 13 options as correct when the instructor would have counted 24. In light of this, we sought out another approach. The best programmatic method for giving partial credit on put-in-order questions would need to take into account more than simple placement in order to better replicate how a human teacher would grade and avoid being overly harsh or generous. After testing every method we could think of, here’s what we came up with.

The new method aims to give as much credit as is reasonable (as most instructors would) by focusing on what we’re calling chains—that is, two or more correctly-ordered items in a row. First, we locate the longest chain. Then, we use it to figure out whether or not other chains before it or after it are in order. Anything not in a chain is incorrect.


This method worked well overall, but there were a couple wrinkles to iron out. One was that the first and last items in the list are at a disadvantage when it comes to chaining: each has only one neighbor to chain with, and so are less likely to be counted as correct. This was solved by treating the top and bottom boundaries of the list as non-credit positions. In other words, if the first or last item is in the correct position it always counts as being in a chain, and receives credit.

The other wrinkle: a response could have more than one longest chain. Depending on which chain you started with it was possible to come up with a different number of points. Here, starting with the first chain leads to a lower score:


We solved this by grading the question multiple times, as it were. We look at each chain, and then look at the position of each chain in the answer. We then see which chain to use as a starting point to grant the most credit.

  • Above, starting with eight-nine-ten  would cause Populi to mark the other two chains wrong (because one-two-three and four-five-six don’t come after eight-nine-ten). This would result in a score of 30% of the possible points.
  • Below, starting with one-two-three lets us then say that four-five-six is correct (because it comes after one-two-three). This lets us mark two chains correct, giving the student more credit for the question (60%)—and thus, is preferable to the other option. Starting with four-five-six results in this same score.


There’s also a very, very remote possibility that the most credit would be awarded by starting with the second-longest chain. So we also try grading using every longest chain and every chain with one fewer item than the longest chain, just in case.

We’re happy to announce this as the new (and hopefully final) method for assigning partial credit to put-in-order questions.

Now, partial credit is, after all, just an option on a feature. But the time we spent working it out and building it is worth it. Professors rely on Populi to save them time with the mundane things (like test-grading), but some of the mundane things are hard to nail. It’s actually quite a challenge to replicate a teacher’s intuition with rigid, literal software code.

As a bonus, we now show which items were marked incorrect in the test history view so students and teachers can see how the partial-credit grade was derived.

Editor’s Note: As you suspected, Yes—the title of this article can be sung to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins.

Way more free file storage for everyone

June 18, 2013.

April 7, 2014.


Doing what we do best, we’re pleased to announce that we’ve yet again given everyone more free file storage. Have a gander at our Pricing page if you don’t believe us.

  • The Small plan just got a little less small with 1,000—count ‘em: one thousand—free gigabytes of file storage.
  • The Medium plan is even medium-er with 2,000 free gigs of file storage.
  • And the Large plan? Yup, it’s now larger: 3,000 gee-bees of file storage, included free.
  • If you manage to go over your limit, additional storage costs just 10 cents per gigabyte per month.

If you used to pay for storage above your plan’s limit, you’re probably paying nothing for those files now. And if you’ve been holding back from uploading files for fear of passing your limit, well, fear no longer—each plan has a lot of free storage.

In case you didn’t know, you can do a lot of stuff with files. You can embed audio and video files in your courses so your students can stream them anywhere on almost any device. Faculty and students can upload and exchange assignment files—and instructors can even annotate documents with feedback. Plus there’s all the humdrum stuff—files in the Activity Feed, the Files app, profile pictures, application files… and so on.

Since files are such an important part of how our customers use Populi, we’re happy to give everyone more opportunity to take full advantage of the functionality—without having to pay extra.