Easier path created to get student data for research purposes


Researchers and administrators who are looking for de-identified data on Pitt students now have a more consistent, clear and transparent way to request the information through the Office of the Provost’s data analytics team.

The information includes types of degrees and majors pursued; demographics, such as gender, race and citizenship; term and cumulative GPAs; test scores, including on the SAT and ACT; and course-level numbers. A student’s specific data may be included, but with no identifying information, such as name, email address or ID number.

Amanda Brodish, associate vice provost for data analytics, said a team of people from Pitt IT, the registrar’s office, the Human Research Protection office, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the provost’s office started working on this issue about two years ago.

They found people were requesting student data through various channels, such as deans’ offices, Pitt IT and the registrar’s office. Eventually, the requests would be filtered to Brodish in the provost’s office, but even there they didn’t have an efficient way of handling them.

Pitt community members who want to do scholarly research intended for publication on student populations have to go through the Human Research Protection office’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). But even if the project is approved, that doesn’t mean they automatically have access to the data.

Administrators who want to do non-scholarly research using student data to improve the quality of education at Pitt don’t always have access to all the information they need, Brodish said. For instance, if one school’s administrators want to look at the performance of students in an introductory course, they would have access to information on students enrolled in that school, but not those enrolled in other schools.

The group that started working two years ago decided to form a committee to approve requests, which would integrate the Human Research Protection office and its IRB process.

But then the pandemic hit.

Brodish said the team found they didn’t “have the staff to work on this, because we’re all dealing with COVID issues, and two, we don’t have the money to do some of the other things that we wanted to do. We really had to, at that point, scale our efforts back a little bit and say, ‘What’s the most important part of this?’”

The result was creating a system that was transparent and easy for administrators and researchers to follow, and ensuring that the data was being shared in an ethical way, she said.

The streamlined process involves researchers or administrators submitting a data request form online, which goes to Brodish and her boss, Steve Wisniewski, vice provost for budget and analytics. If the project involves undergraduate students, it will then go to Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, for approval. Amanda Godley, vice provost for graduate studies, will approve requests for graduate student information.

From there, the request goes to Chad Burton, Pitt IT data and privacy officer, and if needed, to Laurel Gift, Pitt’s compliance officer. Once all the final approvals are given, including through the IRB, then the researcher will be referred to Pitt IT, which will provide the data.

It’s important to note that students can opt out of having even their de-identified data shared through this process. A website for students explains more about the process and has a form that would allow them to opt out of having their data shared. Brodish said this is separate from FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act), because it deals with de-identified data.

So far, two projects have gone through the approval process, and Brodish said, “We were able to work with them very quickly to get them an approval so that they were able to move on with each of their processes.

“We’re really excited to have researchers and administrators start leveraging this process,” she said. “Each of the people I’ve worked with so far, even before we had this formal process. … they really appreciated it. … They found it really cuts down on those emails back and forth trying to figure out who to go to.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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