Populi

Better fee rules and other financial improvements

Fee rules let you set up conditions that automatically trigger a fee when a student enrolls in a course. You can target them at things like enrollments, audits, campuses, custom info, and so on.

Handy as they are, fee rules haven’t always proved flexible enough to target complex situations. It was pretty difficult, for example, to make a fee trigger when students in the Graduate program enrolled in LIT576 at either the Springfield Campus or the Urbana Campus—such either/or situations required multiple fees with different rules.

Our new fee rules (just released last night!) handle these situations with aplomb. Rules now exist within rule groups; you can have multiple rule groups for each fee. Rule groups include an “any/all” selector that lets you specify your conditions with greater clarity. If you use multiple rule groups, you can easily set up conditions that bill students who “all fit this situation and either this or that other situation”. That means it’s now simple to set up a fee that triggers when an Undergraduate student enrolls in 1 to 18 credits at either the Portland Campus or the Online Campus (like the above image).

In addition to rule groups, we’ve added new rules that let you distinguish between all of a student’s enrolled units and those enrolled units that match your other conditions. To learn more, check out our detailed Knowledge Base article that describes how fees work.

Here are some of the other financial improvements we’ve released in the recent weeks and months…

Improved financial dashboard summary

The student’s financial dashboard summary is now headlined by a big fat Make a Payment button that shows the student’s amount due (plus any overdue amount). Upcoming payment due dates (whether for invoices or payment plans) are clearly lined out together with any pending financial aid payments.

Invoice due dates

Lots of people asked for this: you can now edit invoice due dates! Just go to the invoice’s info page and click the pencil next to the due date in the right column.

Recurring payment management

Last May we added the ability to set up recurring donations and payments. A recent updated gives you more options for managing those payments. You can now change the amount, schedule, and payment details on both the payer’s profile and the Recurring Payments/Donations reports.

Academic Auditor role, plus some other new academic features

We’re pleased to announce the release of the Academic Auditor role. Academic Auditor gives the user read-only access to all academic information in Populi—everything from student records to reports to Advising to the course catalog. An Academic Admin can give the new role to anyone they wish, and you can read about its permissions in the Knowledge Base. Our users have been clamoring for a role with these abilities, and we’re really happy to get it out to everyone.


A couple other notable academic features have made it out into the wild the past few weeks. First, School Closures! You can now add holidays and closures to your Academic Years. When you do so, Populi will automatically block out course meeting times for those dates. Likewise, you can also add Library Closures in Library > Calendar—these closures postpone resource due dates and other time-sensitive Library features.



The other one: assignments and attendance for auditing students. Some schools let their auditors receive grades and feedback on coursework, and others like to include them when taking attendance. With the new Auditors setting (in Course > Info), you can now set your courses to allow Faculty to give assignment grades and take attendance for Auditors.

Advising

We’re pleased to announce Populi’s new Advising features. They include a new report, new advising workflows, and an academic warning system. Let’s have a look…

Academic flags

The new academic warning system lets you set up thresholds for red, yellow, and green flags based on course attendance and grades. For example, if a student has three or more consecutive absences, he’ll get a red flag. If his average assignment score from the past 30 days is in the mid-70’s, he’ll get a yellow flag. If in the next 30 days he pulls that average up to 90%, the yellow flag will flip to green. Advisors can ask Populi to send an email when one of their students gets a red or yellow flag.

The new Advising tab

Advisor activity, which used to be focused on the Profile > Advisor tab, now starts in the new Advising tab. Advising includes the Advised Students report and Settings, where you can set up the new academic warning system. Academic Admins, Registrars, and Advisors can all access the Advising tab. The Advised Students report gathers relevant academic information about your students:

  • If the student has any academic flags, you’ll see the most serious one next to his name.
  • 30 day assignment grades lets you see at a glance how the student is faring on assignments graded in the past month.
  • Last Attendance shows you the last time the student was present for a class meeting time.
  • If the student is under academic discipline or has a registration lock, you’ll see that here, too.
  • The Actions menu lets you add/remove Advisors, apply/remove registration locks, and email or export the students shown on the report.
  • Click the student’s name to see the new student advising view.
Student advising view

The student advising view includes an enhanced transcript tool and a summary of the student’s academic flags.

  • In the transcript, you can click the attendance percentage or the grade to see a detailed graph of the student’s class attendance and assignment grades.
  • You can also click the course name to see the new Student Course Summary page.
  • Review and resolve academic flags.
  • The Actions menu lets you manage registration locks and export detailed attendance stats for the student.
Student course summary

The student course summary is accessed through the course roster. It lets faculty, advisors, and registrars drill down into the student’s grades and attendance and manage the student’s flags for that course.

  • The Assignments tab graphs the student’s assignment grades and compares them with the standard deviation derived from all of the course’s students.
  • The Attendance tab, likewise, graphs the student’s attendance stats and lets you compare them with the rest of the class.
  • You can take a closer look at any assignment or meeting time and change the grades or attendance status.
  • The flagging tool lets you manually-add warning flags to the student, assign them to the advisor, and resolve them once the trouble has been sorted out.
Little changes

Together with the big-picture features, you’ll notice a few more options for adding registration locks, adding and removing Advisors, and contacting students. We think these new tools will really help your Advisors guide your students through their time at your school, and we’re happy to get them out to you. Learn more about the ins-and-outs of the new stuff in the Knowledge Base.

Efficiency and expectations

As far as I can make out, “efficiency” means that we ought to discover everything about a machine except what it is for. – G.K. Chesterton


Aurora Bedford writes about the phenomenon of “more efficient” website workflows that nonetheless flummox users who are used to more complex, “inefficient” versions of the same tasks:

…it’s common for many websites and applications to try to reduce the amount of steps—often, clicks—that a user must do in order to complete a task. However, interaction cost is more than just the number of clicks (or other physical actions)—it also involves mental effort. There are times when focusing purely on the number of steps actually backfires: instances when users are so accustomed to the “inefficient” process that streamlining it is perplexing and breaks the task flow.

Bedford recounts the example of an Email Settings form with no Save button:

What is missing from this otherwise fairly standard form? There is no Save button! How do we apply our changes so they are saved in the system? Computer-savvy readers may realize that the form is likely saving any changes whilst they are made, thus gaining efficiency by not requiring an extra save button press. However, most users are not this savvy, and even the savviest amongst us are more used to the pattern of having a Save or Submit button at the end of a form. This is an excellent example of how even the smallest deviation from a standard can cause confusion and increase cognitive load.

I recently encountered this myself when trying to post an image to a blog hosted by Squarespace.

First, I went to the New Post editor:

The title was easy enough to place. And if I wanted to write, I would just click in that text area with the two gray blobs and start typing. But how would I post an image? I hovered over the text area:

Hm. Okay. None of those look like the usual add media options. See, I’m used to WordPress; it’s far and away the most common blogging tool out there (it runs this blog, for one). And for all of its various irritations and flaws, its WYSIWYG editor is unambiguous when it comes to uploading media:

I scrutinized the Squarespace interface, even going into the blog’s settings to see if I needed to somehow enable images. Nothing worked. Finally, I clicked the Help link and searched their articles for How to post an image. This article enlightened me. Turns out I needed to start by clicking one of those gray blobs:

From that point on, posting the image was simple and straightforward. But to get to that point, I had to jettison everything I know about adding an image to a blog post and learn how to use an idiosyncratic interface element I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Sure enough…

…users spend most of their time on other sites… When reaching your site, they expect it to function in the same way as on those other sites—any slight deviation from their norm snaps them out of autopilot and forces them to think and try to find an action that matches this novel situation.

How does this dynamic work with Populi? What expectations do people bring to our software? Here are a few things we’ve learned and observed…

  • Being web-based, we can build on the ready-made language and conventions of web design to help new users intuit how to use Populi. There’s a lot about our service that requires no explanation.
  • For many schools, Populi replaced other types of software. Perhaps a spreadsheet program from a productivity suite. Maybe a homegrown database. Or another program repurposed for running a college. When a school leaves such a program behind, it’s a pretty clean break: users don’t expect a web app to behave like Excel.
  • Other schools came to Populi after years of using terrible purpose-built college software. Some systems didn’t do as much. Other systems did a lot “more”. Some were just unreliable and incompetent. Each one inflicted a peculiar kind of suffering that drove the school into our embrace. This provided another clean break: as long as Populi isn’t anything like that last system, we’re good!
  • We’ve run into this phenomenon with Library. Populi Library is built on the web-capable Dublin Core, but most libraries (and their software) traffic in the more established, but creaky, MaRC format.  We’ve designed our search for simplicity; most library software gives you every search option, ever, on one screen. These, among other differences, have coaxed us into a different approach towards Library improvements than we initially envisioned.
  • Nothing exposes this like a feature update. Our customers use Populi day-in, day-out, so new features invariably break old habits. For example, when the Admissions overhaul improved Populi in every way. But several users told us they preferred the old version—simply because they were used to it! Better as it was, the Admissions rewrite nonetheless caused the cognitive strain Bedford describes. Something similar happened when we rewrote Courses, and even when we changed the old search field to a “hidden” search tab. It wasn’t that these features were a devolution; new users had no problem picking them up. But for those who had gotten used to the old way, the “improvements” didn’t improve their workday (initially, at any rate).

Good software is built on a basic empathy for the user. Usually that means that we reduce complexity and pare things down to their simplest, most efficient expression. But people are complex, and we can’t just mechanically assume that software simplicity begets efficiency. Hopefully, we’ll always keep learning this lesson.

After all, software is for humans, and humans are not for software.

Recurring donations and payments

New in Populi: recurring donations and payments!

It works with both credit cards and echecks processed through Stripe. To get started, just set up a Stripe payment gateway in Financial > Settings and check off the steps listed in this article.

After enabling recurring donations and payments, donors and payers will be able to select whether to make a one-time or recurring monthly payment. To help you keep track of recurring payments, the new Recurring reports in Billing and Donations show you all the details, including amounts, timeframes, and payment methods. You can also manage a person’s recurring payments on their Profile > Financial page.

Stripe makes it possible

We’re really excited about what Stripe integration lets us offer our customers: easy signup, recurring payments, and better, more straightforward pricing than the other processors—2.9% + 30 cents for credit cards, 0.5% + 25 cents for eChecks. To get the most out of online payments in Populi, go to Financial > Settings > Payment Gateways and set up a Stripe account. It’s easy to sign up and easy to try it out!

Stripe integration, convenience fees, and more in our online payments release

We’re excited to announce that Populi now works with online payments service Stripe. Stripe provides us with a superb, secure payments infrastructure. It gives you an inexpensive, nonsense-free payment gateway and merchant account. Their pricing is simple:

That’s it! It has none of the hidden fine-print fees the other processors butter their bread with. And signup is a breeze: you can set up a new account in five minutes and start accepting payments right away.

That’s right—your school can get going with online payments in five minutes.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to Financial > Settings > Online Payments.
  2. Click Add a payment gateway.
  3. Select Stripe as the provider and click Connect to Stripe.
  4. Take a few minutes to fill in the Stripe signup form.
  5. Once you create your account, it’s connected to Populi.
  6. Start taking payments.

Convenience fees and gateway management

Stripe integration is part of our new release that improves how online payments are managed in Populi.

You can now charge a convenience fee for credit/debit transactions. Payment processors (and other middlemen) take a bite out of each transaction—sometimes as much as 5% when all is said and done. To help you recoup these costs, you can set up a percentage-based convenience fee. The fee is automatically applied at checkout when the payer enters the amount she wishes to pay.

The Payment Gateways tab in Financial > Settings lets you manage your gateways—including adding and updating your own Stripe and Authorize.net credentials. You can also specify how you use each gateway. For example,  you could route all tuition, fees, and donations through your Stripe account while sending your bookstore transactions through Authorize.net. If you have multiple campuses, you can even specify which gateway to use at which campus.

The new features give you a great new gateway option with Stripe together with more control over how your school uses Populi for online payments. To learn more, have a look at the Populi Knowledge Base.

* E-check/ACH through Stripe is currently only available to accredited institutions. Please contact Populi Support if you have any questions.

Embedding content in lessons and news posts

You’ve long been able to embed content from external sources—YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd—in news posts and course lessons. We recently made this feature even better: you can now embed content from 17 different services. Here’s a look…

Auto-embeds

Auto-embeds work simply by pasting the content’s URL right in the text of the post or lesson. This works with YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd, and now Prezi, a service that lets you create and share presentations.

First, copy the URL of the media you want to include from one of those services.

Next, paste it right into the news or lesson editor.

Once you save, Populi does the rest: the content is now embedded in your post or lesson!

Iframes

An inline frame—or iframe—is a way to embed one web page within another. We’ve been cagey about those in the past because, when done poorly, an iframe can present a security risk. But seeing that our users were needing more flexibility in this area, we decided to “whitelist” a number of trustworthy sites and services. So, you can now use embed codes from any whitelisted service to incorporate external content in news and lessons—without anyone having to worry about security.

Here’s how to embed content using an iframe:

First, grab the embed code. Different services have different ways of doing this and give you different appearance options—and some, like Spotify, require a paid account to get the embed code. Whatever you do, make sure you get the embed code, and not some sort of “share this” link!

Then, open the HTML source editor.

Paste the embed code directly into the HTML source editor and click Update.

You’ll see the embedded content right in the news/lesson editor—and, of course, in the finished product when you click Save.

The whitelisted services are Google Docs, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Scribd, Prezi, Soundcloud, Rdio, Spotify, Twitch, Vine, TED, Slideshare, Imgur, Box, Crocdoc, and Quickcast. If you have another service you’d like to us to add, send us a support request and we’ll take a look at it.

Donations!

New in Populi Financial: Donations.

Donations lets you keep track of fundraising campaigns, accept online donations, record other contributions (checks received in the mail, etc.), and, of course, generate reports on any of this activity. Paired with Populi’s communications and contacts features, Donations helps you manage your school’s relationships with its donors—while giving you brand-new ways to help get money in the door. Here’s a look at what you can do…

Online donations

If you’re set up with credit card processing, you can start accepting online donations. Online donation pages give you options for what amounts your supporters can donate, which funds they can donate to, and whether donations received through that page should be connected to particular campaigns and appeals. You can embed your pages on your website or email newsletter and customize their appearance with your own custom CSS. Online donation pages are a great way to make donating to your school easier than ever.

Campaigns and appeals

Campaigns and appeals help you track your progress towards your fundraising goals. Appeals are fundraising communications or events used to solicit donations—anything from a “Remember to Give” postcard to a fundraising golf tournament. You can link donations to campaigns and individual appeals; Populi can also calculate the return on investment by comparing costs with results. Campaigns help you gain insight into what approaches work—or don’t—when it comes to fundraising.

Donor profiles

The new Donations tab, available on organization profiles and the Profile > Financial tab, collects all the information you have about a donor’s activity. You can record new donations, link to past donations, and print yearly summaries.

Reports

Reporting includes the new donations Dashboard, which summarizes donor activity, and the Donations and Donors reports, each of which feature the upgraded report filter. The new filter includes some built-in report filters that let you quickly find commonly-desired information—Donors who donated last year but not this, for example. It also lets you save your filters as custom reports that you can share with other staff or keep for your own use. Report actions let you do a number of tasks—including printing receipts and summaries, tagging your donors, and exporting your report to XLS.

Communications and contacts

Of course, Donations works in concert with Populi’s existing communication and contact features. Want to email everyone who donated to the Library? Want to put all of your alumni donors on a Communication Plan? Want to tag businesses that have donated in the past three years? Want to print envelopes and mail out summaries before tax season? No problem.

Learn more

Read about how to set up and use the new Donations features in the Populi Knowledge Base.

Also, a special thank-you to the customers who participated in our limited beta roll-out of Donations. You really put it through its paces and gave us some great feedback, and we truly are grateful for your insight!

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 2.12.17 PM

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.

2-25-15 manage TS

PDF exports

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

1-29-15 export pdf

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.

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