An Entrepreneurial Approach to Digital Learning

Alaska. 1992. Christopher Macandless stumbles down a snow-covered trail with only a few belongings. 

Alaska. 1992. Christopher Macandless stumbles down a snow-covered trail with only a few belongings. 

So begins the voiceover to a movie trailer-like preview of Jon Krakauer's best-selling book, “Into the Wild.” To Robert Romano,  the video his company StudySync produced to intrigue young students symbolizes what teaching and learning should be in the 21st century: interactive, interesting, and relevant. 

“Traditionally teaching included a lot of talking ‘at’ students with little in the way of interactive discourse. Getting them to participate in their learning is essential,” says Romano (‘95, English, ‘96, M.A. English), who co-founded StudySync, an educational technology company in 2009 with Jay King. “There is an entertainment value in what we do, but that’s just a means to engage students. We leverage the technology that students use in their ‘real’ lives  to find points of entry to get them excited to read, to learn, to build knowledge.”

StudySync, Romano’s second ed-tech success, is based in Northern California and develops and publishes English language arts (ELA) curricula, providing multimedia exercises, lessons, and other materials. As CEO, Romano creates the vision for the product, conceptualizing the multimedia elements, and finding unique applications of technology. He also prioritizes the focus for 100 employees—among them are academic, engineering, and marketing experts. In less than 10 years, the company has a major foothold in classrooms across the nation. Used in all states and adapted to meet national educational standards and state adoptions, StudySync has become the country’s number one core ELA program. 

Today over 3 million students and teachers use it daily. Those numbers have swelled during the pandemic, which has brought into stark relief the critical role online learning now plays and how it will shape pedagogy in the future.  

"Being digital first, our products were suited to distance learning prior to the pandemic, so not much has changed as far as how we operate as a company or implement our product. But now there is even greater interest and need, with 2020 being our biggest growth year ever," he says. “There are still many challenges to overcome, and many of them coming to light with the pandemic, especially inequities in technology and teaching experience around remote learning. We have tried to simplify the experience to help facilitate a better teaching experience by providing greater support and implementation, including smaller modules that are more easily assimilated into the distance learning model.”

StudySync also meets students where they are with technology. Students have access to an online library of 5,000 books, informational texts, and source documents with associated lesson plans. There are video tutorials--shot and produced in-house at  StudySync’s studio--of students discussing a book or excerpt to demonstrate how to deconstruct readings and build on the ideas of others, constructing meaning together. Taking its cues from social media, the company creates videos and has built-in functions that allow students and teachers to interact and provide feedback online. 

Romano emphasizes that StudySync isn’t a replacement for teachers. It’s a teaching tool that enhances the teaching experience, opening up a gateway to literature, and a journey of knowledge.

“Students might access Grapes of Wrath, including media that sets the stage of time and place. That could lead to a discussion about the meaning of family, the economics of the Great Depression, and the history of human migration, and of the human experience. It’s a collaborative process where students build on each others’ ideas,” he says. “This isn’t a stagnant experience. Content can be associated with what’s happening in the world for them today.”

Between earning two college degrees, writing for Hollywood, establishing five businesses (while re-establishing another), and becoming a skilled woodcarver, Romano’s own journey has branched into different directions.

He studied Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston in the 1970s. Restless to experience something different and to learn more about natural sciences, he headed to California and transferred to HSU. Soon he was distracted by an entrepreneurial opportunity.

He and a partner resurrected a defunct woodworking factory in Eureka and designed and built furniture that was shipped throughout the country and to Japan. Romano sold the company in 1978 and later invested in a new project: real estate, launching a development company that built thousands of homes and apartments throughout the state before selling it in 1986. Around this time, he briefly worked in the TV and movie business. 

By the ‘90s, he returned to what he loved: literature. At age 39 and with two young children, Romano came back to his graduate studies at Humboldt State. 

Sensing Romano’s potential, HSU English professor emeritus Tom Gage introduced him to James Moffett, a pioneer in reforming the teaching of English language arts. That introduction would eventually lead Romano to his first ed-tech business venture.

"Robert is really an amazing story. He's become one of the most important and influential people in K-12 digital learning in the United States," says Gage.

After HSU, Romano was also accepted into a Ph.D. program at Harvard but instead chose the path of private industry. In 1996, he teamed up with Moffett and King to launch EdVantage Software, which produced a curriculum delivered on CDs that taught reading and writing to K-12 students. EdVantage was later sold to RiverDeep, one of the first ed-tech giants. Romano bought a vineyard in France and launched another company, Global Vineyard Estate in 2005, and founded StudySync four years later. StudySync was recently sold to tech giant Weld North and Imagine Learning.

“Humboldt tied me into my first start in education and technology. And being in a beautiful place with heartfelt people was inspiring. Students there are free thinkers, too. I love Humboldt State,” he says. 

So what’s next for Romano?

“I will continue what I’m doing for now, as CEO of StudySync, anticipating changes in technology, learning from the way students interact with their world, and developing new ways to build knowledge and ignite curiosity,” he says. “After this? Well, I must say I do have some ideas brewing.”

Photo: Robert Romano (‘95, English, ‘96, M.A. English), co-founder of StudySync. Image courtesy of StudySync.