Populi

FERPA and Populi

We’re asked from time to time whether Populi complies with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations, better known by its comic-strip-sound-effect acronym FERPA. The answer to that question is… No!

Populi doesn’t comply with FERPA? Then what are we doing in the educational records business?

We don’t comply with FERPA because, well, we can’t. Here’s the relevant chunk from the Act itself:

§ 99.1 To which educational agencies or institutions do these regulations apply?

(a) Except as otherwise noted in § 99.10, this part applies to an educational agency or institution to which funds have been made available under any program administered by the Secretary, If–

(1)The educational institution provides educational services or instruction, or both, to students; or

(2) The educational agency is authorized to direct and control public elementary or secondary, or postsecondary educational institutions.

(b) This part does not apply to an educational agency or institution solely because students attending that agency or institution receive nonmonetary benefits under a program referenced in paragraph (a) of this section, if no funds under that program are made available to the agency or institution.

(c) The Secretary considers funds to be made available to an educational agency or institution if funds under one or more of the programs referenced in paragraph (a) of this section-

(1) Are provided to the agency or institution by grant, cooperative agreement, contract, subgrant, or subcontract; or (2) Are provided to students attending the agency or institution and the funds may be paid to the agency or institution by those students for educational purposes, such as under the Pell Grant Program and the Guaranteed Student Loan Program (Titles IV-A-l and IV-B, respectively, of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended).

(d) If an educational agency or institution receives funds under one or more of the programs covered by this section, the regulations in this part apply to the recipient as a whole, including each of its components (such as a department within a university).

If you’re anything like me, your eyes glazed over about four words into that stodgy governmentese. I nonetheless toughed through it a few times, and here’s the gist: FERPA regulates educational agencies or institutions that receive money from the Federal Government. Populi is neither of those things—we’re a privately-owned software company. Your school, on the other hand, is subject to the Act if it takes Federal financial aid (or some other funding administrated by the U.S. Department of Education). If it doesn’t, you’re governed by whatever state and local laws might apply, together with reliable standbys like common sense and good taste.

What we do is give our customers the tools to help you comply with FERPA. When used properly, Populi keeps confidential student info private and out-of-sight except to those who need to see it. Likewise, public information (what FERPA calls “directory information”) is easier to get at—but even then, if a student requests that it be made private (as is her right under FERPA), Populi lets you easily comply with her wishes.

Of course, privacy laws can and do change. If and when that happens, it’s a simple matter to update Populi so our customers have the tools to remain within bounds. It’s a company priority.

Does FERPA apply to us? Well, technically, No. Is it part of the burden we seek to ease for our schools? Absolutely.

We’re also occasionally asked about our compliance with Canadian privacy laws. There’s a lot to sort through. Different provinces have different regulations, and the laws north of the 49th concern not just personal information but also where that information is physically stored—that is, where exactly are the servers located? We wrote about this awhile ago; the brief takeaway is that our current Canadian customers (and the vast majority of schools who’d consider Populi) have nothing to worry about.

Cross listing and other academics updates

The Populi developers have been cranking out new academics features at a steady clip. Here’s a look at some of what’s new:

Cross Listing

You can now cross-list courses at the course instance level. After adding a course to an academic term, you can then cross-list it with other courses right on the Info view. Cross-listed courses let you set up assignments for students in one course or the other; otherwise, they share all course content, meeting times, faculty, and so on.

Registration lottery

The new advanced options for online enrollment let you introduce a delay/lottery for student registrations. You can set all registrations to process at a certain date and time, and randomize submitted registrations so that the earlier requests aren’t prioritized over the later ones.

Custom Student ID numbers

You can now customize the Student ID numbers automatically-generated by Populi when you create new students. You can include variables for last name, month/day/year, random numbers, and sequential number counters. If you want to set that up for your school, start by reading this article.

Release notes

This is as good a time as any to remind you to check out our weekly Release Notes, published every Friday in the Knowledge Base. If you like, you can also subscribe to them—just click the Follow button and choose whether you’d like to receive email about New Articles or New Articles and Comments.

Email dropboxing

Email dropboxing lets Staff and Faculty users attach emails sent from outside Populi to a person’s Activity Feed. It’s been part of Populi since Presidents’ Day, 2012, and we’re soon to release an update that will introduce a few handy front-end and back-end improvements.

Here’s a look at dropboxing from stem to stern—how to use it and how it will work after the update.

Get your dropbox address

To start using your dropbox, go to your personal Populi settings. Generate your dropbox address and create a contact for it in your non-Populi email program. That’s it!

Oh, and make sure to keep your dropbox address to yourself—there’s no need for anyone else to know it…

BCC and forward emails to your dropbox

To use your dropbox, just BCC it when you send an email from an address listed in your Populi contact information. Or, if you receive an email you can just forward it to your dropbox. As long as you send it to email addresses listed for people in Populi…

  • When you BCC an email, the message will attach to the activity feeds for anyone with email addresses that are in the To and CC fields.
  • When you forward a message, it will attach to the activity feed of the person who sent it to you. If you forward a message you previously sent, it will go to the activity feeds of the people to whom you earlier sent it.

New stuff and other details
  • Emails on activity feeds will include any reply chains—just click read more to see them.
  • If multiple people have an email address, Populi will pick someone to whom to attach it. You’ll also get an email telling you who else could have had it attached together with links to profiles to fix any aberrant contact info.
  • If the email addresses aren’t in Populi, then you’ll get an email telling you so.
  • Have a look in the Populi Knowledge Base for full details about dropboxing.

Friendlier names in Populi

The Preferred name field lets you enter a nickname or a common name for a person and have that appear in place of their first name in many places throughout Populi. If Eleanor Rigby goes by “Ellie”, or Aloysius James Quincy wants to go by his middle name, you got them covered—Ellie Rigby and James Quincy. But what if everybody at your school calls you Pastor Ken, or Sister Ramirez, or Dr. Stein? The Preferred name doesn’t quite work—you could enter bad data into Populi’s name fields… or you might just be out of luck. We’ve always given you all the fields you need for good record keeping, but not what you needed for an online community.

Enter Populi Name.

The Populi Name is what everyone will see if they look at your profile or a class roster or see your name on the Students Table… or anywhere else your name displays. By default, it automatically fills in with your First or Preferred name followed by your Last name. This is what already displayed most of the time. But with the new, separate Populi Name field, school staff can enter whatever you wish to be known as in Populi. Dr. Alice Charlotte Smith can now be Dr. Smith. Sister Lena Ramirez can now be Sr. Ramirez. And that art student who is known around campus as the Fire emoji? No problem.

The Populi Name name will be used in Populi itself and display for all users; documents like transcripts and financial statements will still use legal names. On the profile, Staff users will have the option to see a person’s full legal name with a click, or, if they prefer, they can choose to see the full name by default via a personal setting.

We’re always trying to make Populi friendlier and more familiar for all our users, and to that end we’re willing to look at anything—even something as basic as how a name displays.

Files update

We’re soon to release a big update to Files. Here’s a look at what’s coming…

Subfolders

It’s one of our top feature requests: subfolders. Just like the name sounds, it’s a folder within a folder that helps you better organize your files. Of course, we also added functions that let you move or copy files from one folder to another.

More storage

Previously, every user at your school was given 50 MB of file storage. With the update, your school’s Populi Account Administrator can set file storage limits by user role. For example, you could give faculty 2 GB of file storage and limit students to 500 MB.

Improved file sharing

Sharing files is much improved. You can send files to other Populi users or share folders with individuals and people with certain user roles. When sharing folders, you can specify what level of access a role or person has—they can view files, edit (add new ones, delete, rename, etc.), or manage (share the folder with others, for example).

Large file uploader, viewer, and file options

We updated the file uploader—now you can easily upload big files by dragging-and-dropping (the same way you can in courses and other places in Populi). Audio and video files play right from the built-in media viewer. The document viewer lets you look at PDFs, images, word documents, spreadsheets, and more right in your browser. And if you need to download, send, rename, or delete the file, those functions are near at hand.

A few notes

We’re moving the Files link up into the top-level navigation bar (it’s currently next to the My Profile tab).

In the old Files, you would upload files into the Shared folder and specify which user roles could access that item. To accommodate the update and its expanded pallette of folders and sharing features, we’ll transfer your shared files into new shared folders for each user role (or combination) with which you’ve shared a file. For example, if you’ve shared some files with faculty and others with faculty and advisors, those files will be transfered to two new folders: one called Shared with faculty and the other called Shared with faculty and advisors.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Populi support.

Financial aid improvements

We’re shortly to release some improvements to Financial Aid that we thought merited a heads-up:

  • The aid application student view gives students a couple new tools. In the section where students can accept and reject aid award offers, they can now decrease the loan amount they wish to accept. Additionally, each award includes estimated disbursement dates.
  • We’ve added a couple new ways to catch mismatches between the enrollment status on a student’s aid application and the student’s actual enrollment. There’s a mismatch indicator on the Aid Applications report to help you spot such students. Additionally, financial aid users can opt-in to receive emailed alerts of such mismatches.
  • Financial Aid > Reporting now includes a FISAP report that lets you export the raw data.
  • The built-in Stafford Loan has been renamed Direct Loan, to better comport with what it has been called for, oh, the past five years.

These improvements, plus some behind-the-scenes upgrades, should be going live in the wee hours of March 9, 2017.

Populi welcomes Josiah Frazier

Yet another J on the contact page: Josiah Frazier joined us here at Populi on January 2nd. He’s already providing much-needed help to Toby and Patrick with software testing and bugfixes.

It is said of him that there is no software program that he can’t flummox. Yea, you might say that software fears him: if there’s a way to copy-paste Moby Dick into a first-name field and break the whole site, he’ll find it. A mind like that is crucial to keeping Populi in fighting trim: if you can find the problem, you can fix it (even better: finding the problem before the customer does!). Skills aside, Josiah is something of a PR nightmare. He’s related by marriage to two other Populi employees, so when they come after us for nepotism, we’ll have to say, “Guilty as charged”.

Josiah is husband to Afton and father to Naomi, Mira, and Amos. When he’s not breaking our software, he’s often out in the forested wilds of Idaho doing as one does in said wilds: hunting, fishing, hiking, searching for hot springs.

We’re really happy to have Josiah here with us. And if you ever run into a Populi bug, you’ll be glad that he’s on the case, too.

New course features: reply to replies, better incomplete grading, and a few other things

We’ve added a few new features to courses over the past few weeks that we thought we’d highlight for you…

Replies to replies

You can now reply to replies in discussions. So, a student comments, another replies to her, and yet another student replies to that reply. In graded discussions, the next level of replies is included in any reply-based grading criteria.

Incomplete students

We rejiggered how you grade incomplete students and mark them complete. In former times, you’d enter grades and switch the student back to enrolled all in one fell swoop. But that way of combining those actions didn’t really suit our users, and change was in order.

Now you can grade assignments for a finalized incomplete student on the Student Course Summary page—and you can grade them as they’re handed in, not all in one moment. Meanwhile, marking her complete (which changes her to enrolled and finalizes her grades and attendance) is a separate action. You also have options to fiddle with her pass/fail status during the incomplete phase. The new options will make handling incomplete students a lot simpler for a lot more of our users.

Miscellany: gradebook, Tin Cans, new audio player

We added a new action to the gradebook that lets you fill all empty assignment grades with 0’s. It’ll come in handy for situations where you have a bunch of ungraded assignments that you don’t want to excuse—with one click, you can enter 0 grades for each and every one.

You can now include Tin Can elements in lessons. Tin Can is a software specification that lets learning content and systems speak to each other. If your school is using e-learning content creators like Articulate and Adobe Captivate to generate online learning content, you can export that content as a Tin Can package and incorporate it into a Populi lesson. If you require students to complete the Tin Can, Populi will wait to hear from the element as to whether the student finished before letting him proceed to the next lesson.

Finally, we upgraded the audio player so every user gets the same playback experience regardless of browser.

1098-T improvements

We updated the 1098-T report with a bunch of new features last week. Here’s what you need to know…

First things first

On January 1 of every year, Populi takes all the billing and financial aid information you’ve entered for your students and automatically generates a 1098-T form. The 1098-T report lets you review, release, and export these forms with tools that, conservatively, save you days of work. We keep an eye on the IRS regulations and make sure that the forms Populi generates comply with whatever new rules and minutiae those industrious pencil-pushers have scribbled into existence. And with the new features, you now have more tools at your disposal to get these forms off your to-do list.

Simply put, Populi does all the rote stuff so you don’t have to.

They’re compliant

Submitting a 1098-T to the IRS with a bad Social Security Number is what is known in higher ed accounting as a “big fat no-no”. We’ve done a few things to help prevent that:

  • Populi flags students with no SSN or an obvious “placeholder” number (e.g. 123-45-6789). It then prevents forms from being released to students who are so flagged. Meanwhile, you know exactly who’s SSN’s you need to update.
  • There’s a new checkbox that lets you indicate that you’ve complied with regulation section 1.6050S-1; said regulation requires you to hunt down the Taxpayer Identification Number (usually just the SSN) for your 1098-T students. This corresponds to the newly-scribbled-into-existence checkbox on the IRS forms.
  • Before exporting, you have to release the forms! Exporting unreleased forms frequently leads to a lot of sorrow and heartache, and in the interest of sparing you, we’ve closed that door.
They’re adjustable!

Sometimes, you just gotta adjust a 1098-T. This frequently happens with schools that get started with Populi mid-year or maintain financial records in something like Quickbooks. Now you can adjust the Populi-generated values for any unreleased 1098-T right on the report, a feat that used to require a support request. Changes are recorded to preserve the audit trail, and you can even indicate a voided or corrected form using the adjuster doohickey.

They’re un-releasable!

After releasing a form, sometimes you wish you could just… unrelease a form—perhaps you catch an error, or you realize the student doesn’t merit a 1098-T this year. Whatever the case, in former times you’d have to get Populi Support on the horn to do such a thing. Now there’s a new Hide/Unrelease function in the Actions menu that puts the task on your own timetable.

Thus, the new features (we also put out a bunch of under-the-hood improvements, too). For all the details and how-to’s, head over to the Populi Knowledge Base, or fire off a question to the support crew.

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2017 From Populi!

Populi Christmas 2016

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

From everyone here to all of you who made 2016 a great year to work at Populi, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

* Future employee #spoilers