Populi

Populi welcomes Jordan Smith

Man, our contact page is going bananas. Emily Hoos came aboard in October to bring order (and an unreal beverage selection) to our office. And now, three months later, behold: Jordan Smith, our new support representative, who officially came aboard January 1st and made an appearance at our 2015 Christmas party. We’ve known Jordan for many years. Most of us worked with him back in the EMSI days, and he’s Joel Penney’s brother-in-law.

Jordan brings with him years of troubleshooting and technical support. As Help Desk Team Lead at EMSI, he kept everyone’s laptops and Salesforce integrations in fighting trim; as owner-operator of Palouse PC, he did IT consulting for a variety of small businesses and institutions here in Moscow, Idaho. While still getting the hang of everything Populi does, he definitely knows what our customers need. He’s already essential to handling support alongside Isaac and Josh.

A native of Amityville, Long Island, New York, (yup, that one) Jordan is the husband of Kara and father to Isla. We’re really happy to have him working with us!

Forgetting the Internet

Listening in on a sales demo the other day, it struck me: we no longer need to explain web-based software the way we used to. Back in 2008, a good chunk of Nick and Joseph’s time was spent telling schools about the ABC’s of web-based software: browser-based, hosted on our hardware, available anywhere, maintenance and updates on us. The Internet was not new, nor was Populi on the cutting edge of cloud-based software. But the notion of a small school getting real work done using the web was novel enough that we gave it a whole page on our website.

In 2016, the web is part of everything. It’s not just that we’re used to web-based productivity software—it’s that the Internet is applied, seemingly, to all problems. Think of it: in 2008, the web was largely accessed via the desktop browser. In 2016, we use it just as often on our phones. And we use those devices not just to check email and look at websites, but to control network-connected things like light bulbs, refrigerators, and, wonderfully, diapers.

Image credit: Engadget

So, yeah, if the baby poops, we want the Internet to tell us. The web is enough a part of life that people will throw money at this idea expecting to make it all back. So of course schools now come to us taking it for granted that we’re web-based. That means that the web is something that we now expect, a utility like electricity or running water that we don’t notice unless it’s not working. Benedict Evans observes this phenomenon:

Our grandparents could have told you how many electric motors they owned – there was one in the car, one in the fridge and so on, and they owned maybe a dozen. In the same way, we know roughly how many devices we own with a network connection, and, again, our children won’t. Many of those use cases will seem silly to us, just as our grandparents would laugh at the idea of a button to lower a car window, but the sheer range and cheapness of sensors and components, mostly coming out of the smartphone supply chain, will make them ubiquitous and invisible – we’ll forget about them just as we’ve forgotten about electric motors.

Before everything had a network connection, you thought about the Internet more. But as it’s shoved into every object imaginable, it becomes invisible. And that’s when it goes unexamined. Unexamined things can change us in ways we will not see. We now expect the world to work a certain way, a way that replaces a brief sniff test on the diaper with a Bluetooth notification on the phone.

Here’s how unexamined it is already. A moment ago, I said that we “expect the world to work a certain way” and you didn’t notice. Earlier I wrote that “the web is part of everything”, and you didn’t care. I’m going to let Alan Jacobs take us to task:

“Technology is shifting our way of seeing the world.” “The internet really has changed the world completely.” Pray tell, what is “the world”? Seriously, I want to know what people mean by this. If “the world” has been changed completely, why does the silver maple outside my window still stand as it has for decades? Why is the gazpacho at Emilio’s as good as it was when I first tasted it, twenty-five years ago? Why does the prose of Sir Thomas Browne still delight me as it did when I first encountered it at age nineteen? Why do I still love my wife?

If you answer, “Well, that’s not what they mean by ‘the world,’” I counter, “Then what do they mean? Because all those things I just mentioned are in the only world that I know.”

Jacobs concludes:

No more essays about how “technology” or “the internet” is “changing everything.” They all say the same thing, which in the end amounts to: absolutely nothing. So let’s get down to cases. What technologies did you rely on today? What did they help you do? What did they allow you to avoid doing? What did they prevent you from doing that you wanted to do? Specify. As the proverbs tell us, both God and the Devil are in the details.

Another sage, Nicolás Gómez Dávila, once put it thus: “Intelligence consists not in finding solutions, but in not losing sight of the problems.” Jacobs’ questions keep the problems in sight, and as the web is woven into every solution and the din of modern life, this is what we must remember when telling people about Populi.

What problems do we solve? What new problems might we create? Can we address new issues and things we can’t predict? Will we remember the world apart from the web? It’s where the low winter sun catches the roofmelt off the grain elevator. Where the cheese on a Humble Burger fuses just so with the sauce. Where Thomas Tallis wrote a 40-part motet. Where sons dash across the surf as the Pacific crashes into California.

Image credit: Humble Burger

Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink and his soul should enjoy good in his labor.

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2016 From Populi!

Populi Christmas 2015

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

From everyone here to all of you who made 2015 a great year to work at Populi, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

* Future employee #spoilers

Test proctoring

Just in time for Christmas, something new for you: test proctoring!

Test proctoring lets you require that a third party keep an eye on your online students when taking a test. It uses SMS messaging to give the proctor codes to “check in” and “check out” to verify that he was there the entire time the student was taking the test. Here’s how it works:

  1. When setting up the test, you can specify whether or not to require proctoring. You can also require proctoring for specific students by adding a proctoring exception.
  2. The student goes to take an online test in Populi as normal.
  3. Before he can start the test, Populi asks for contact information from the proctor, including a mobile phone number. The proctor fills it out right there—no separate login required!—and submits it.
  4. Populi sends the proctor an SMS with a check-in code. The proctor enters the code and lets the student back on the computer.
  5. The student takes the test.
  6. After the student submits the test, the proctor receives another SMS with a check-out code. After entering the code and checking to confirm that the student took the test without cheating, it’s all done!
  7. If everything is above-board, then no further action is needed. But if the proctor has concerns, she can contact the school; likewise, the course faculty will find the proctor’s contact info attached to the test.

Test proctoring should come in handy for schools of all stripes, especially those that administrate a lot of online tests. Read more about proctoring in the Populi Knowledge Base.

We released a bunch of other new things alongside test proctoring. Take a moment to look at this week’s Release Notes (and while you’re at it, subscribe to the forum so you don’t miss anything new!).

Campus Life

Campus Life lets staff and student workers add selected fees, manage room and board assignments, and track non-academic violations and consequences (things like parking tickets or student code violations) for anyone at your school. The new features, reports, and workflows help you take care of lots of lower-level tasks so your high-level staff can concentrate on the big picture. Here’s a look at Campus Life:

Room & board

Campus Life users can manage room plans and housing assignments for anyone at your school—everyone from students to visiting professors staying in college residences. The Rooms report gives you a complete look at the housing situation, and the new room management page lets you add occupants and keep notes. Room and meal plans can be managed on the new Profile > Campus Life tab (which syncs this info with the same items on Profile > Financial > By Term). As part of the release, we’ve also given facilities a new home in Campus Life > Settings.

Campus Life fees

You can now select certain fees that Campus Life users can apply to students and others at your school. Those fees can be triggered by infractions or added as-needed. Each Campus Life report also includes an Apply Fee action so you can charge students in bulk. Fees are then invoiced as normal by a financial user.

Violations & Consequences

Violations and consequences let you record a student or other person’s non-academic infractions. Did a freshman start a ramen fire because she left the saucepan on a hotplate? Drop a room damage fee on her! Has that new assistant coach parked his junky ’85 Datsun in the president’s spot again? Ding him with a parking ticket! Did that exchange student flout the dress code and dress in cutoff jeans and sleeveless tees all semester long? Time for a visit with the discipline board!

Both violations and consequences can trigger a fee; you can also set up consequences to apply when a student gets a certain number of violations in a given time period. You’ll have a full record of the whole thing right on the Profile > Campus Life tab and the new Violations and Consequences reports.

Get to know Campus Life

Check out the Campus Life documentation in the Populi Knowledge Base to get a fuller sense of what it does and how it works.

We’re always pleased when we can give our customers something new, and we hope Campus Life helps your school get even more out of Populi!

The miracle

You’re reading this because it is possible to transmit information around the world by making electricity move through melted sand in a particular way.

Paul Ford:

A computer is a clock with benefits. They all work the same, doing second-grade math, one step at a time: Tick, take a number and put it in box one. Tick, take another number, put it in box two. Tick, operate (an operation might be addition or subtraction) on those two numbers and put the resulting number in box one. Tick, check if the result is zero, and if it is, go to some other box and follow a new set of instructions.

The near-infinite possibilities of computing come down to little numbers in little boxes getting added to or subtracted from one another.

Because of this basic fact, at its heart, software is as rigidly and uncreatively literal as one of Archimedes’ levers, pulleys, or wedges, but made out of electricity that moves in mysterious pulses through melted sand.

The near-infinite possibilities contained within a human being—let alone humanity itself—are manifestly not the product of little numbers in little boxes being manipulated by basic math.

There are two kinds of problems encountered with software. The first is that when software works, mighty labor is involved in making what is essentially a lever, pulley, or wedge communicate meaningfully with a human that skipped breakfast because he was making his infant daughter laugh at him. The second is that when software breaks, it’s because at some point, a human skipped breakfast after getting his infant daughter to laugh at him, and then sat down and wrote some code.

When you buy software, you’re really buying someone’s promise that the code he wrote after skipping breakfast to make his infant daughter laugh one more time will reliably, predictably cause the result(s) you’re after.

When software is broken, the problem is referred to as a bug. That’s because a moth once got caught in an old tube-based computer and made the thing stop working.

An error message simply means that the command, “[IF A, B, or C happens, THEN produce ERROR message]” worked. That’s because software is rigid, literal, and uncreative. When something’s wrong, the software doesn’t know that. It also doesn’t know when anything is right, either. If the power’s on, it just goes.

A moth’s flight is erratic and unpredictable. Software bugs, while appearing to be random and disorderly, are actually predictable and repeatable if you know how to trigger them. They’re usually as predictable and repeatable as the parts of the software that are working properly. A bug means that code was successfully executed; it’s just that a human wrote code that did something unreliable, undesirable, or unpredictable.

We write code and fix bugs in Populi using software that itself has bugs and produces errors. We design Populi around bugs in web browsers, errors in programming languages, and the limitations presented by an extremely literal line of code that must meaningfully communicate with a human who is sleepy from too much breakfast and a night spent comforting an infant daughter with a cold.

It’s frankly a miracle that anything works at all.

New help and profile drop-downs

We just released a small but handy update to the personal and help links in Populi. Here’s an eleven-second video:

Your name now has a drop-down that lets you go to your profile, view and update your personal account settings, and log out of Populi.

The orange Help button now lets you link directly to different, helpful tasks in our Knowledge Base:

  • Go straight to the Populi Support home page
  • Open a new support request
  • Search for articles in the Knowledge Base
  • Make a feature request
  • Check out the user forum

Small things can prove pretty helpful sometimes. We hope you like the new drop-downs!

The Populi user forum

Ever since we launched Populi, we’ve included customer support free with every pricing plan. Our schools get help via email, phone, and the Knowledge Base starting the day they sign up and every day following. We’ve always wanted to make it easy to get answers about Populi.

But some questions come our way that are a bit beyond what we’re fit to answer. What’s the best way to use Quickbooks for a non-profit? How do you handle access for accreditation staff? What’s your policy for online course attendance? And so on. These are questions not so much about Populi as they are about the best way to run your school (and how Populi fits into that). On those matters, we like to defer to the experts: other users. Among our hundreds of customers, we have schools with a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and missions—and, we’re sure, someone who has puzzled through your very problem and now has wisdom to share.

You can seek out that wisdom—and share your own—on the Populi User Forum. The Forum lets our users pose questions about best practices, school policies, workflow ideas, and so on—basically, anything having to do with running your school (including how to use Populi to make that happen). We encourage you to get on the Forum; a simple way to keep an eye on it is to subscribe to email updates. These will alert you to new topics, comments, and replies. Here’s how to subscribe:

1. Go to the Knowledge Base

Click the orange help button in the upper right corner of Populi. Or, go to Populi Support and log in with your regular Populi login credentials and your school’s Populi URL.

2. Go to the User Forum

In the right column of the Populi Support landing page, you’ll see a list of Forums. Click User Forums.

You’ll then see links to the User Forum and the Feature Request Forum. Click the User Forum heading.

3. Subscribe!

Near the top of the screen, you’ll see a subscribe link. Click it, and you’ll be subscribed—that’s it! Now, whenever someone posts or updates a new topic or comment, you’ll receive a message about it at the email address marked Primary on your Populi profile.

Of course, everyone here is keeping an eye on the User Forum, too. We think it’s a great opportunity for our users to help each other out and learn more about making Populi do the most for your school.

Populi welcomes Emily Hoos

If you’ve been watching our contact page like a hawk you may have already noticed a new face. We’re pleased to announce Emily Hoos (like hose—as opposed to whose) has joined our team to take on a variety of roles from bookkeeping to event planning to making our new office a more hospitable place.

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With her husband, David

Today is her one-monthaversary here at Populi and she’s already taken over daily bookkeeping, ordered furniture for our spartan lobby, planned our Fall party, and procured a simply spectacular beverage selection for our break room. Yeah, we made a good call.

Financial aid workflow updates

Our new financial release gives Financial Aid its own General Settings section and introduces some new, more flexible workflows. Here’s a look:

Refunds

A new setting now lets Student Billing and Financial Admin users refund financial aid to students. When you check Yes on the new setting, the Refund to Student workflow is folded in under your options in the new Refund Credit Balance workflow on Profile > Financial > Dashboard. An additional new setting lets you configure your Aid Refund Policy—if you need to combine aid refunds with regular credit balance refunds, for example, you now have that option.

The new setting is a one-way, opt-in setting; once you enable it, you’re upgraded to the new, improved workflow (for keeps!). It’s a considerable improvement to the old batch workflow, and it will definitely take some work off your Financial Aid department’s desk. Read about it in the Populi Knowledge Base.

Refund Credit Balance

With all this talk of a new Refund Credit Balance workflow, we thought it’d be helpful to tell you what we’re talking about.

Formerly, non-aid refunds to students were handled as an outgoing payment. There were some problems with this. For starters, most folks didn’t think to look for the refund workflow under the Record Payment option. It also only let you refund regular payments—it didn’t touch aid refunds to students, which are handled by many schools’ student billing departments.

The new Refund Credit Balance option now appears whenever the student has something refundable—an unapplied payment or credit, or unapplied aid (if you’ve updated the aforementioned setting). The steps are just the same as the old workflow, with numerous provisions for the Aid Refund Policy setting. It’s more intuitive, and what’s more, the option only appears in the actions menu if there’s something refundable on the student’s account. It’s an improvement not just for Financial Aid, but your Student Billing office as well. Read more about the new Refund Credit Balance workflow.

Batch workflow order

The Disbursement batch workflow setting lets you specify which comes first: disbursing aid to students or drawing down the funds from the aid source. If your school is required to disburse-then-draw-down for Federal aid awards, you can now set up your batch workflow to follow the same steps in the same order you do.