Friday, October 16, 2009

Interview with Isaac Grauke, Populi: Innovators in E-Learning Series

Integrating the learning management system with a student information system is often tedious, expensive, and fraught with incompatibility problems. Welcome to an interview with Isaac Grauke, Populi (, which has devleoped a system that brings together SIS and LMS functions.

What is your name, affiliation, and relation to elearning?
I’m Isaac Grauke and I’m the CEO of Populi. We make web-based college management software, and a major part of that includes online learning and course management.

What made you interested in developing solutions for elearning?
You typically have two different kinds of software, the learning management system (LMS) and the student information system (SIS). In broad terms, the LMS manages courses, and more and more it delivers courses to students online, whether distance ed or on-campus. The SIS, generally, keeps track of the students’ personal and academic information.

So, most colleges have two separate programs for SIS and LMS, which create a number of inefficiencies: duplicated costs, online learners disconnected from traditional learners, and the difficulty of getting two systems to talk to each other. We became interested in developing a solution for e-learning when we saw how much time and money were being wasted, and how good solutions were all but out-of-reach for smaller colleges. We designed Populi to combine SIS and LMS functionality in one system, eliminating the costs and inefficiencies that arise from dividing those functions over two or more systems.

What is Populi and how is it different from other learning management solutions?
Populi is web-based college management software. We strive to combine, in one system, software that helps colleges track all their information—admissions, academics, student billing, financial aid—as well as course management and online learning. Colleges—especially smaller colleges—are a lot more unified than their software might lead you to believe, and we wanted Populi to reflect that.

So, Populi has the major LMS functionality, of course— lessons, tests, forums, bulletin boards, file uploades, gradebook, and so on—and, most important, it offers seamless, effortless integration between the LMS and SIS. In Populi, they’re different elements of the same program, and so they share information where it makes sense. LMS grading info, for instance, automatically feeds into student GPA’s, transcripts, and degree audits.

In addition to the SIS integration, Populi LMS is different from other solutions because of our focus on usability. It’s easy to set up, and easy to use. Anyone who works with a dedicated LMS—whether open-source or enterprise-level—will tell you that they need technical support just to run it and make it work with their other software. That was one problem we wanted to eliminate with Populi—you just don’t need an IT background to run it.

And you don’t need to be any sort of expert to use it. We approached the user interface so it would—to paraphrase the old rule of rhetoric—tell you what you’re going to do, have you do it, then tell you that it’s done. We also eschew customization. From our own experiences going through college, and from reports about LMS systems in general, we’ve learned that when a system allows too much customization, students have to relearn the system every time they take a new course. We built Populi so that if you take a course once, you’ll know how to take any course in the system.

You mentioned earlier that Populi eliminates inefficiencies by managing both student information and online learning. What does that mean for students?
Well, first, as I just mentioned, our emphasis on usability benefits everyone involved in online courses—faculty, students, registar, other staff. We provide customer support and other help resources, but it’s amazing to us how little they’re used—even though our customer colleges are really using Populi for everything. When we rolled out the online learning features, just about the only feedback were minor feature suggestions. But nothing in terms of “How do I…?” Students didn’t have any trouble to speak of. They logged in, saw what they needed to do, and did it.

But in the big picture, the combination of SIS and LMS features really enhances accessibility; putting everything the student needs in one place, with one login. 37signals published their thoughts on software design in a book called Getting Real, and one way to summarize their approach is that good software gets the job done and then gets out of your way. So, with Populi, a student can take a test, and once they submit it, they can see how it affects their in-progress course grade. At the end of the term, when courses are finalized, they can print a grade report or see their transcript or check out their Degree Audit—one click apiece—as well as keep abreast of their tuition and fees. Students don’t have to spend a lot of time on the system figuring out the navigation—the things they’re looking for are right there, or within a click or two. Rather than spending a lot of time figuring out software, they can just find their lessons, tests, or other assignments, and simply take care of it. Software that stays out of your way lets you devote your time and energy to the content the software delivers. And, obviously, content and meaningful interaction is the important thing when it comes to learning, and Populi strives to basically get out of the way and let that happen.

How does Populi foster student learning? What are the underlying philosophies of learning that underlie the project?
I suppose I answered this question in part in the previous response—the underlying philosophy of our software is essentially the same as our view of education. The thing that matters is the content the instructor provides and a student’s interaction with it; therefore, the software mustn’t interfere with that process, and so it ought to be as unobtrusive as possible. That’s the basic idea.

In practice, we’re seeing colleges use the e-learning components to enhance their traditional classrooms in lots of creative ways. One instructor used to devote the first fifteen minutes of each class for a review quiz. Within hours of pushing the online learning features, he had already converted those quizzes into online tests with Populi, and effectively gained 45 minutes a week of instruction time (the course meets three times weekly). That critical face-to-face class time now goes to lecturing and discussing material, and things like routine quizzes and tests are handled online.

And, of course, Populi makes it simple for a college to offer any of their courses to their distance-learning students. Online education really fits the bill for a wide variety of people—people in the workforce who need to fit their classes around business schedules, people who need less expensive education options, people limited by simple factors like geography. Giving colleges the ability to offer distance learners the same software access that on-campus students have—that enhances distance access to the college and, again, hopefully simplifies the process a student goes through to interact meaningfully with the course.

Do you have any plans for Populi?
We’re taking it a day at a time at this point! We’ve gotten a huge, positive response from colleges when they see Populi, especially the smaller institutions that are looking to expand their online presence. We provide them with a very affordable, low-stress means of doing that.

Right now Populi streamlines almost all of the day-to-day operations of the college. Our plan is to expand into the few areas we have yet to touch. The big things on our development timeline for the end of 2009 and into 2010 include a library information system, online payment processing, and a donor management system. All of the new features would be integrated into what we have already, and developed in accord with that basic “get it done and get out of the way” approach. And, of course, the more we learn about how our customers use Populi, the more usable we can make it.

What would you like to see in the future with respect to elearning and mobile learning?
I think there is a huge opportunity to expand the e-learning experience by going mobile. Populi has an iPhone app but at this point it is only available to access school email, course schedules, and faculty and student contact information. I’d like to see all of the online learning content in there including lessons, forums and tests. But, again, that sort of thing is only helpful if it fosters that crucial interaction. One of the risks of mobile education is that your courses can more easily disappear into the din of information and e-noise that more and more envelopes a student’s life nowadays. So while we hope to upgrade the iPhone app and make it more of an aid to students in relation to their courses, there’s also something to be said for reserving the educational experience, to emphasize it in a context where the student can concentrate on the meat and not the technology.

Have you read any interesting books lately? Please share :)
Well, on the business side of things, and as I’ve mentioned a few times here, everyone at the office is enjoying the 37signals book Getting Real. Lots of good reality checks in that book, and good, sensible principles for a company like Populi to keep in mind—basically, build your software to solve a real problem, and make sure it’s usable. Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky—I’m reading that for the second time. I don’t know of anyone else who writes about landscapes the way he does. It describes his upbringing in Montana, sheep ranching with his father. Simply staggering prose in places. And then I’ve been reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series to my son. We’re in an educational community that values the Classics, and those books fit rather nicely into that. And they’re pretty funny. I get almost as wrapped up in them as my son has.

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