Community Partnership Boosts Digital and Health Literacy

November 17, 2022

Students, faculty, and staff volunteers across Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), alongside leaders from the Upper Manhattan community, are working to improve health literacy while closing the digital divide. LEARNIT (Learning, Evaluation, and Assessing Resources and Needs in Informational Technology) is a volunteer-based, service-learning program which began during the height of the pandemic and racial justice protests as a complimentary five-week seminar series on race and health disparities, and has since expanded to offer health screenings and educational workshops.

The most recent LEARNIT Digital Saturday event, held on November 12, was attended by about 100 participants. The program offers a variety of services targeted at improving digital and health literacy. This includes workshops led by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Professor Robert Fullilove in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, and Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons Professor Julie Glickstein in the Department of Pediatrics/Division of Pediatric Cardiology. LEARNIT also offers one-on-one tech support with CUIMC and community-based student volunteers, and blood pressure screenings administered by certified community health workers.

The program began through Race & Health seminar series, sponsored by the Columbia Summer Research Institute, in the summer of 2020 to Columbia University affiliates then again in the spring of  2021 to Columbia University and its community neighbors. In addition to Fullilove and Glickstein, members of the core leadership team include Tina Ting, Project Coordinator at the Columbia Wellness Center; Jessica O. Idumonyi, Research Coordinator at the Columbia Wellness Center; and community leaders Dave Crenshaw and Al Kurland.

Motivated by the lack of internet access and smartphone usage to arrange vaccinations and testing in the community during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was piloted in July 2021 to overcome these obstacles. With its great success, LEARNIT now offers regular opportunities for members of the Northern Manhattan community to attend workshops designed to impact access to health care to understand how best to address and end the digital divide. 

What is unique about LEARNIT is its use of a service-learning program to establish community-institution collaborations that are reciprocal and impactful. This event was the culmination of a year and a half of pilot testing during which LEARNIT has successfully grown and sustained community partnerships that have lasted over time. For example, November 12 marked the third event held in partnership with ARC A. Phillip Randolph Senior Center in Harlem. Since the founding of the program in May of 2021, LEARNIT has held 14 events in partnership with numerous faith and community based organizations throughout Northern Manhattan. 

LEARNIT is now looking to scale and expand the reach of the program by adapting their low-cost, community-embedded program model to serve communities beyond Northern Manhattan. Their goal is pilot tech events in underserved and underrepresented communities, utilize a train-the-trainer model to enhance program sustainability, and continue to assess community needs through their two-step needs assessment to help understand the impact of the digital divide on access to resources. 

“LEARNIT is a very important proof of concept. It demonstrates that a partnership which engages community members, students, faculty, and staff at CUIMC can create successful, impactful programs,” said Fullilove, who is also Columbia Mailman School associate dean for Community and Minority Affairs. “LEARNIT meets a profound need in our community. The fact that we have been able to respond to that need and in doing so make new friends and important connections is a source of real joy for me.”

“There is no better example of collaboration than our grassroots project LEARNIT. What COVID-19 has taught us is that to serve our community with effective health care requires a partnership between the Upper Manhattan population and our medical center,” noted Glickstein, who is also program director of the fellowship program in Pediatric Cardiology, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York Presbyterian. “LEARNIT does exactly that. This project has been a wonderful privilege for me in so many ways to work with such outstanding members of our Washington Heights/Harlem community along with wonderful CUIMC colleagues.”