By 2001, writer, educator and entrepreneur Robert Romano had already developed and sold a successful educational software company when he refocused his attention on raising his kids and writing a novel.
Meanwhile, as any parent can attest, the technological environment our kids are growing up in is radically disrupting the way they perceive the world around them, and changing the way they learn.
With his background in literature and writing, Romano found it difficult to see his son put off his summer reading (which included Walden) in favor of movies and video games until it was almost time to go back to school.
So he decided to try and do something about it. The result is a brand new educational product called StudySync, which is, in essence, a collaborative social learning tool that uses high-end videos and other interactive multimedia features to make books like the 19th-century classic by Thoreau more accessible to a 21st-century kid on his iPhone.
This product, which was released just two months ago near the end of the past school year, is generating excitement among educators from Vancouver to Madrid, and is currently being evaluated for possible purchase by the San Francisco Unified School District.
"What we try to do is to leverage that focus on technology that today's kids have, and affirm their behavior in order to expose them to great ideas from the past," explains Romano. "We don't tell them to turn off their device in order to learn, we tell them to keep it on!"
In order to pique the students' interest, StudySync has produced hundreds of high-quality videos featuring excerpts of works like Crime & Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities. The typical video runs 10-12 minutes and is scripted first by academic experts, and then polished by Hollywood writers.
The result, says Romano, is "MTV meets Yale," or a sort of rolling library of movie trailers for the classics.
"Kids start to see how to get meaning from these old texts, and also that their own point of view and perspective is valid," he continues. "The goal is to engage them and help them learn to think critically, based on exposure to the great ideas from history."
According to Romano, "the core of the product is about social learning. As a student, you post a 300-word essay about a text to a group selected by the teacher. This is a peer to peer audience, and everyone posts to it anonymously. Other students rate and critique your essay without letting any biases they might have about you as a person coming into play."
There is also an intriguing component of the product called Blasts. These are weekly queries about something in the news that invites students to post Twitter-like comments (140 characters or less) that go out to everyone in the StudySync network.
Students rate each comment on a scale of 1-5 and the result is a Top Ten Rated Blast List -- an academic accomplishment more in line with the expectations of a gamer generation than, say, the gold stars or honor lists of the past.
Teachers have options to customize all of these components and organize, for example, a Shakespeare Club that might reach well beyond a single class or school to work virtually with teachers and students anywhere interested in collaborative learning about Shakespeare.
"The concept is to expand the classroom beyond its walls, and also beyond the one-to-one teacher-student relationship," says Romano.
Anyone can sign up for a free trial of StudySync, which is also priced so low (roughly $2/year.student) that it may well prove impossible for even resource-pressed educators like those in San Francisco to resist this coming school year.
Which would be a good thing for Romano and his company, Bookhead LearningEd. They are based in Sonoma but operate virtually with people in a variety of locations, including several corners of the Bay Area.
As to whether he'll also be finishing that novel of his, which is a work of historical fiction, any time soon, we'll probably just have to see how well Robert Romano proves to be at multi-tasking.