Reusing education data for research

On this page: further processing, secondary use, reuse, student data, education, legal basis, access control
Date of last review: 2022-11-18

A research group at the Science faculty wanted to investigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on students’ motivation and study success in a specific course. To do so, they wanted to analyse:

  • Students’ evaluations of the course from both before and during the pandemic.
  • Students’ test and final grades in the course from both before and during the pandemic.

The primary researchers already had access to the data for their educational activities, and so they wanted to use the data for research purposes. They went to their faculty privacy officer to find out how they could reuse these data in a responsible way.

The following privacy issues are relevant in this use case:

  • The raw data were identifiable
    The student grades were linked to names, and both the grades and the evaluations were linked to student IDs. Moreover, the evaluations could potentially contain names of teachers and other personal information, as they consisted of partly open-ended questions. To decrease identifiability, the principal investigator and a second examiner, who already had access to the students’ data, first removed or replaced all names with pseudonyms (both names of student and teachers), and went through the open-ended questions to remove potentially directly identifiable information. Only after deidentification were the data shared with research assistants who performed the main data and content analyses.

  • Data subjects’ rights
    Most students had already finished the course, and were not informed about the use of their evaluations and grades for this research project. The researchers argued that the majority of the students could not be traced anymore to provide this information or to enable them to exercise their data subjects’ rights (art. 14(5)(b)). Moreover, in case a student did want to exercise their rights, it would prove difficult to retrieve the correct data, as the data were deidentified as soon as possible.

  • Legal basis
    Students did not provide explicit consent to process their grades and evaluations for this research project. Moreover, if they had provided consent, it could be argued that the consent was not freely given, as the primary researchers were also involved as teachers, and therefore there was a hierarchical relationship between the students and the teachers. For these reasons, consent was not a suitable legal basis in this case. Instead, the researchers relied on:
    • Public interest: processing students’ data for the course itself is a public task, namely that of providing education. It was the legal basis for the initial data collection.
    • Further processing for scientific research purposes: processing data to answer the research question can be considered as secondary use of the students’ personal data. The GDPR does not consider secondary use of personal data for scientific research purposes incompatible with the original purpose (i.e., the original purpose being to provide education and improving the course, art. 5(1)(b)). Thus, it was not necessary to rely on a new legal basis for this research project, provided that the data were protected sufficiently: The researchers made sure that the data were well-protected (i.e., minimised, pseudonymised, and access controlled, art. 89).