Online Canadian citizenship testing is no quick fix

Shelby Thevenot
Published: September 19, 2020

With citizenship tests suspended as part of Canada’s coronavirus response, tens of thousands of would-be Canadians are blocked from getting a passport and the right to vote.

About 85,000 people are waiting to take the citizenship test, according to the immigration department’s data from September 7. Permanent residents need to take the test in order to get Canadian citizenship, which gives them the same privileges that Canadian-born citizens enjoy. Citizenship status is also a symbolic gesture for many immigrants that means they are now a part of the Canadian family.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said they are looking into offering online citizenship tests and interviews, but they have to consider how they would verify the identities of people taking the test and uphold the integrity of the program. They did not provide CIC News with a timeline for when this will happen, but recently announced that certain applicants will be called to do in-person retests.

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The challenge of integrity with online testing

The pandemic has elevated the need for online testing. Canadian post-secondary institutions are coming up with various solutions such as changing the curriculum to allow open-book tests. They may use testing software that implements different measures that make it harder to cheat, like imposing time limits on tests, or making it impossible to open another tab without locking down the test. Some have also opted for artificial intelligence such as ProctorU, which was created to address the issue of integrity in online testing.

Using artificial intelligence as proctors has been an idea in the making long before the pandemic. Duolingo, for example, has been developing their AI proctor for about five years to allow test-takers to complete their language tests from anywhere at any time.

The Duolingo English Test records students during the testing session. The video is then uploaded to artificial intelligence software that detects any suspicious behaviour or broken rules. The information collected from the AI then goes to in-house workers who review the videos to make sure the AI has not made any mistakes.

“We have two humans who go through the entirety of the video… to make sure that the artificial intelligence has not unduly hurt a student by saying, ‘there’s noise here that must mean somebody else is in the room,’” said Sam Fleischmann, Duolingo’s English test international engagement manager, “The human proctors pick up that, [it] was actually just kids walking up the staircase.”

The test results are acceptable for students to use for admission to certain Canadian universities. Fleischmann said it took years to develop the AI proctor and says Duolingo is still working to improve the technology.

“Our mission is to make sure that testing is more accessible through assessment technology and that’s why we spent so much time making sure that this proprietary work is solid and good,” Fleischmann said. “That’s a big investment for universities or governments to take on.”

Numbers of new citizens significantly reduced from 2019

IRCC cancelled all citizenship tests, re-tests, interviews and ceremonies on March 14, in response to the COVID-19 situation. Virtual citizenship ceremonies have since resumed, however, the 2,500 to 3,000 citizenship oaths they are now per week is still down from 2019 when they were processing about 4,700 citizenship oaths per week.

Andrew Griffith, political commentator and former director general of Citizenship and Multiculturalism, calls the delay in testing “understandable” given the infrastructure required to make online testing available. But, he questions the low number of virtual ceremonies that IRCC has conducted since the pandemic hit.

“I have less sympathy in terms of the number of virtual ceremonies because I think Australia proved it could be done on a larger scale,” Griffith told CIC News.

Australia has conducted about 80,000 online ceremonies since March whereas Canada has only held about 7,000.

“By the time [citizenship applicants] get to the ceremony it’s basically a rubber stamp exercise because all the security checks have been done, they do the test and then they can take the oath,” Griffith said. “It’s a pretty streamlined process at that point in time.”

IRCC will start offering some in-person services on September 21, including citizenship re-testing in Vancouver. They will monitor the results to see if more services can be offered in-person in the future.

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© 2020 CIC News All Rights Reserved

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