Navigating FERPA and IRB for a Campus Improvement Project

So the road gets bumpy… Who ever said learning was easy… individually or institutionally?

When does one need to complete a proposal with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and when does FERPA get invoked? How does one comply with and navigate the laws and still get any work done?

In this case, I’m trying to understand things in order to better help faculty who are interested in doing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) projects and to also understand the process for my own professional work. So I made my fall project (paired LL ED College Reading course and content course Psych 100) the guinea pig.

I thought I had kept it relatively simple, but as these things go…simple isn’t always so simple.

Understanding the underlying principles is important.

Institutional Research Board (IRB) – is part of The Human Research Protection Program in the Office for Research Protections whose mission is to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local regulations as well as institutional policies and procedures regarding the use of humans as participants in research.

For those doing SoTL work, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • Does my project involve human subjects?
  • Is my project “research”?

If your project is formal research using human subjects, then a proposal must be submitted to the IRB for approval.

The definition of “research” (Title 45 CFR, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 46.102(d), Federal Register, 56, p.28013) is: “A systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”  If you present the information outside of the PSU community, this is contributing to generalizable knowledge and, hence, is “research.”

Does FERPA apply?

Yes, if an IRB is warranted, then it does. In my case, I completed the IRB which was approved. I got informed consent, using the templates and guidelines provided. For projects that are exempt status in the IRB process, they don’t ask to see the consent forms – only a description. However, later, the IRB came back to say that the informed consent form needed to be more specific with the exact type of data to be collected. So while I used the generic template and gave details in the recruitment process verbally, I understood only later that  the exact type of data to be collected (gpa, course grades, etc.) needs to be on the consent form that students will sign . Don’t be confused by the website that says recruitment for classroom research can be done verbally – I assumed this meant details to students verbally – BUT, you need to put the exact  data types on the form. So don’t take a chance – it is better to be more specific than not enough. In my case, I was asked to go back to all 150 students and get a re-consent form. This was impossible since students were now in a new semester.

So in the end, I could use the data for campus reporting, but I could not use it to present at an outside conference.

If your project is NOT “research”, but is just a campus improvement project which will not lead to formal research/publication, then no IRB is required, and a FERPA exemption for student consent is allowed, provided the guidelines are followed.

What is the role of FERPA in this case (  Does a students’ right to privacy impact the ability of campus personnel to do campus improvement projects? No, but there are guidelines.

FERPA does contain some exceptions to the written consent rule. Those exceptions allow disclosure without consent: to University officials (including third parties under contract) with legitimate educational interests) Penn State’s University Policy on Confidentiality of Student Records, AD-11

What constitutes “legitimate educational interest“?

FERPA permits university employees to have access to student education records in which they have “legitimate educational interest.” It is important to understand several points related to “legitimate educational interest:”

  • Curiosity is not a legitimate educational interest. Just because you have access to ISIS and are able to view the record of your neighbor’s son, does not mean that you have a legitimate educational interest in his grades and cumulative GPA.
  • Simply the fact that you are a university employee does not constitute legitimate educational interest. Your need to know must be related to your job responsibilities in support of the university’s educational mission. In other words, records should be used only in the context of official business in conjunction with the educational success of the student.
  • Your legitimate educational interest is limited. While you may have a need to access education records for students in your college, you do not necessarily have a similar need to view records of students outside your college. In other words, access to information does not authorize unrestricted use.

If a person is a University official with a legitimate educational interest – in this case an approved campus improvement project – then the FERPA exemption for written consent applies.

Bottom line?

Get campus approval before you start your project. Be clear what you will do after the project: campus use only for an improvement project? or outside sharing? Follow the IRB procedures and FERPA guidelines as needed.

Outside sharing of projects with student data – yes? Complete IRB and informed consent forms with details about data to be collected that students sign.

Campus improvement project only? Get campus approval. FERPA exemption applies for University official with a legitimate educational interest.

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