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Institute for Advanced Learning & Research: Representing the Future

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), in south-central Virginia’s Danville, is a regional technology showcase using AxisTV digital signage software and MeetingMinder™ room signs as part of the mission to revitalize an area that has been hard hit in the new, globalized economy.

At the end of the 1990’s, the economy of Southside was bad and getting worse. Nowhere else in Virginia was there higher unemployment. Approximately one-fifth of adults in Southside had less than a ninth grade education. A local group of concerned citizens, the Future of the Piedmont of the Dan River Region, approached Virginia Tech for assistance in creating a knowledge-based economy in a region devastated by the loss of manufacturing and the decline of tobacco farming.

A key component to this ambitious new scheme was Virginia Tech’s partnership project with local government to get the area’s fiber optic internet backbone in place. The other integral element was the establishment of research centers that would attract talent and knowledge-based businesses to the area. The new model for university-led economic research led to the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, an institution combining research and educational facilities to promote economic development through partnerships with local government, VT, and local educational institutions Averett University and Danville Community College.

Dubbed as “Stargate on the Dan”, the Institute began conducting cutting-edge research in four areas: polymer processing, high value horticulture, motorsports engineering, and robotic systems. The idea was to interest both professionals and the general public in a new “innovation economy” and create a “knowledge to business” capacity for Danville, attracting new types of businesses to the area.

“We were tasked to be the technology,” explained Maurice Ferrell, the former Chief Information Officer at IALR. “People in this area have heard a lot about ‘modern technology’ and, at the Institute, folks get to see some of the cutting-edge technology they don’t normally see.” Ferrell, who worked in IT at IALR for over five years, explained, “When people come to the Institute, their first sight is a massive, two-story glass-and-steel atrium with a huge digital screen, made up of nine displays, hanging in the center. These screens use AxisTV from Visix to show daily events messages, advertising, and video, fed by AxisTV’s Screensaver option.”

The IALR also uses five of Visix’s MeetingMinder™ room signs, displayed on metal stands that complement the building’s architecture, located outside the Conference Center’s boardrooms and the Executive Boardroom. There is also a MeetingMinder™ sign outside the 135-seat Executive Auditorium, which boasts a 9- by 16-foot HD screen with digital surround sound, Internet-ready tables and two cameras for videoconferencing.

As the host of an eight-county technology council called the Southern Piedmont Technology Council (SPTC), the IALR continues to offer cutting-edge technology as a means to moving the local economy into the 21st century. As part of this mission, the IALR welcomes visitors. As the city’s showcase facility, the Institute is a must-see stop for local economic development officials touring representatives of companies that may want to invest in the local area. “We use and showcase innovative technologies and solutions that are cost effective,” noted Jason Moore, IALR’s new Director of IT. “We are a catalyst in an economically-depressed region, so we are very interested in high-tech solutions that can help with the revitalization of the local economy.”

As Southside Virginia continues to implement its plans to become a vibrant, knowledge-based economy, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research will also expand its role as a leader in the region’s comeback. As Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine said, “The Institute is a great symbol of the vision and innovation that have been the hallmarks of Virginia for 400 years. In just a few short years, the Institute has become a critical driver of the economic revitalization occurring across Southside, and its importance to this region and to the entire Commonwealth will only continue to grow.”

Kelly Fitzgerald, IT Specialist at IALR noted, “We saw AxisTV in action and then test-drove the system at InfoComm, which was probably the number one factor that helped us fine-tune our decision.” The Virginia Tech graduate and Danville native added, “It really catches the eye and looks and feels very high-tech. Right now we list daily events on our screens as well as current news. We have completed our integration project with Dean Evans and Associates’ EMS scheduling application.”

The Visix MeetingMinder™ room signs keep participants in conferences and meetings up to date on what is happening inside the facility and have added weather information so people know what is happening outside as well. “AxisTV grabs weather data from our local television station every five minutes,” Fitzgerald explained, “so it is all pretty up-to-the-minute.”

Fitzgerald is the go-to person when someone wants to display information on the system. “They conceptualize the basics of what they want and email it to me. Then I design it as an image file, usually using PhotoShop or PowerPoint, and email it back to them for review,” she said.

IT Director Moore added, “We use this system for our internal customer base but also for paying customers who want specific, targeted content.” The Institute is preparing to partner with a sister institution over 40 miles away. Connected via fiber-optic cable, the institutions will, according to Moore, “market each other’s classes. We hope in the next year to keep expanding out, merging our system with other sister institutions.”

Three other Institute-operated facilities – one behind the main building and another two more than 20 miles away – will all get the AxisTV system if all goes according to plan. Response to the system has been enthusiastic. Moore shares the enthusiasm, explaining, “AxisTV is faster to use than older forms of communicating. We don’t have to print things out, so we are going green this way. We cut down on time, but don’t cut down trees.”