ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

How a Vocational Center Changed its Way to Train Adults: A Case Study on Computer-Based Learning and Vocational Training

By Yves Messier / August 2020

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Vocational training centers emphasize the skills and knowledge required for a job function. What is taught and the ways of teaching are affected by the skills and competencies required by the evolving labor market. EFFA (Ecole de Formation Funéraire Alyscamps), a private French vocational center dedicated to funeral services, can ensure its viability by providing trainings that are adaptive, affordable, and meaningful to clients’ profiles and needs and that ultimately lead to the student getting a job. This job will be the first one for some of our clients, while it will be a new one for some others.

EFFA is also adapting to the political situation. Public policies pertaining to funding for vocational training are constantly evolving with regard to the available public funds. Since government funds are decreasing, clients are reacting to this uncertainty by totally or partially paying for their training.

The pedagogical methods must be efficient, as efficiency is a major point for recruiting new clients. Clients need to feel they are learning and achieving success on exercises and exams and then being hired after the training. These are good ways to let them know what we can do for them. As an example, our communications team is advertising that 85 percent of our clients find a job within 30 days after the end of their training. This has an impact on the image of the training center. Employability is not everything; trainings must be enjoyable and use the latest pedagogical methods. This enhances confidence in the training center and promotes self-confidence at an affordable price. Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University in the 19th century, wrote in “The new education” in 1869: “a continuous updating on how and what students learn was primordial if our goal was to see education evolving in step with society” [1]. EFFA is following the path described by Eliot. 

At EFFA, 40 percent of our clients are enrolling in our trainings to get the needed skills and the diploma to find their first job ever. Sixty percent of our clients are in the second or the third phase of their careers and are heading to new professional positions. In France, Europe, and overseas territories, funeral services are not yet seen as a place where jobs can be found. As a poorly known economic field, the unemployment rate in funeral services is low, and being hired fast can be attractive to anyone who is looking for a first job or a new one. The curriculum of our trainings is based on psychology, religious traditions, law, funeral planification, embalming, sociology, and commercial techniques and strategies.

In April 2019, EFFA conducted a survey asking clients who had attended training between 2013 and March 2019, why they had chosen EFFA. Sixty percent of the clients responded that e-learning and virtual classrooms were the major factors supporting their decision. Clients were satisfied with our solutions because they considered them to be “clear” and “easy to use.” These comments were important to us, as many clients were telling us that computers and the internet were much more a cause of stress than anything else. Our solutions were “user friendly” and provided a reliable tool in the context of economic difficulties.

“Evolving in step with society” as stated by Charles W. Eliot, is the key to understanding EFFA’s development. Ten years ago, a decision was made: Electronic learning would be our way to adapt to a changing society to gain new clients and reach new markets. e-learning was a logical choice, as this way of training was gaining in popularity around the world, but it was also audacious. In France, in 2010, traditional teaching was perceived as the only “serious” way to teach. Any other form was considered to be an inefficient gimmick. The clients had to be controlled and observed, and a computer was not able to perform these tasks. Considering that physical contact with the clients was perceived to be a key element in academic achievement, especially in humanities or commercial fields, a computer was not sufficient. In those years, the first company producing e-learning was only 10 years old, and a lot had to be done to convince clients that learning through the internet was not a child’s game but was as effective as learning in the classroom.

Three requirements were identified to make our plan successful. We had to “evolve in step with society”:

  1. To offer affordable trainings to attract the widest range of clients Many of our clients can no longer rely on government help to pay for their training. They had to pay for it on their own. As for pedagogical fees, many had to add fees for travel tickets, meals, and hotels.
  2. To keep using pedagogical techniques for adult learning and to make the learning experience as pleasant as it can be. One of our main characteristics is the use of andragogy (adult learning pedagogy), which includes active pedagogy. We always put the adult learner at the center of the pedagogical design and we factor in the information and competencies our clients require and how they are enriched during the exchange among students.
  3. To create and maintain a positive, modern, and engaging image of the training center by publishing statistics and comments made by our clients on social networks as well as our employment rate. The documents were all available at our office for anyone interested in seeing them.

What resulted were three projects: blended learning, e-learning, and virtual classes. 

The First Project: Blended learning

We started developing our first online class in 2011. This project was organized to be a blended learning project, as 60 percent of the class was to be delivered in a traditional classroom and 40 percent in asynchronous e-learning. It was ambitious, mostly because we had to create an unprecedented solution by synthesizing hundreds of pages of legislative texts, some of them written at the beginning of the 19th century, in designing a class for adults born in the 20th and 21st centuries. We were also producing videos, cartoons, quizzes, and integrated authentic documents such as laws, pages of the Constitution, etc. The design had to encourage self-confidence and autonomy, giving clients a sense of confidence that they were progressing in their learning and reaching their goals, much like a teacher would do in a traditional class. The design of our online class had to consider the state of mind of our clients, fulfilling their needs, such as having ways to control their logging in and out (control and reporting), while providing an attractive pedagogy that encouraged the students to persist. It also had to include assessment tools to monitor what was mastered and where there were areas for improvement as well as an efficient attendance-tracking system (for trainings paid for by the government, attendance proofs were required in order to get paid).

Logic and simplicity. Because we work for the funeral services, our design followed what we could call “logic and simplicity.” Organizing funerals can be done in many ways. We decided to use the most common way and apply it as the framework for structuring the information that we had to provide. For example, the major steps for organizing funerals are as follows: know who is dead, where the body is, who the person is who will take charge in organizing the funeral, what the wishes of the bereaved are, and whether will it be a burial or a cremation. We followed these steps to structure the information, providing a path through the organization of funerals. All along the “road,” information and tips were given and placed in context by examining the consequences produced by a type of organization and the existing alternatives. This way, the clients had the sense they were being active in their learning, and, according to our surveys, this was motivating.

We also worked on simplicity. Learning can be a tiring experience. We decided to write simple sentences (subject + verb+ object). Sometimes, we had one proposition connected with a relative clause but no more than that. Each of these sentences presented a single piece of information. The lecture was easy, the clients were not tired, and the impression at the end was that everything “clear and easy,” and that was one of our goals: to be clear and easy.

Enhancing trust with quizzes and videos. The timing of quizzes was an important part of the pedagogical design, as their purpose was to assess what was learned earlier and to gather information regarding whether any further effort was needed to gain the right understanding. In some situations, we also had clients complete quizzes before receiving the information to aid our presentation and preparation of the lesson to come. We also produced videos to introduce what was about to come and some others to synthesize the most recent material covered. We also produced videos to present our solutions and to explain how to connect with us, demonstrating that it was as simple as connecting to the Internet to read emails.

Group empowerment. We established a hotline service available whenever the clients were experiencing difficulties. The hotline was reachable by phone call, SMS, and e-mail. The information needed was written on a guide given to the clients on their first day. We also performed tests to be sure that everyone had good information and they would leave the training center with the feeling they would ultimately be able to easily connect with us.

Change Management Activities

One of our responsibilities was to explain that traditional learning and e-learning could be compared but not evaluated on the same basis, and the efficiency of online classes and the rate of achievement could not be assessed with the same criteria. We also knew simply saying that our solution was “well-conceived” and was “responding to any needs” of our clients would never be enough to make our clients confident in what we were proposing.

In our advertisement, we put traditional learning and our online solution side by side. We described the exercises done in the classroom and we compared them with what was proposed online. We explained what the information given was and how the same information was available to the clients via video. We also described the exercises done in class and how they were done online.

We proposed our clients perform screen-sharing activities in which we showed them how the information was structured, the quizzes that were available, and how to access the hotline to answer any questions or handle any difficulties. We were also on many professional shows where we made live presentations of our solutions.

The project was online by January 1, 2013. As our clients were professional adults, most of who were already employed and had families and children, the e-learning project had five requirements:

  1. Resources in several varying formats: video instructions providing audio and video learning available if the student did not understand the topic the first time around.
  2. Convenient and flexible options available from anywhere and at any time with free access 24/7.
  3. The use of a pedagogical design that was engaging and promoted the independence of the client.
  4. The promotion of active and independent learning.
  5. Interaction with everyone online through discussion boards and chats to ease doubts if any were present.

As soon as we started to advertise the new online solution, questions about its effectiveness, and how it compared with traditional classrooms arose. At first sight, e-learning was attractive. It looked modern and many clients were proud to say that they were studying online. They were free to learn at their own pace and to define personal learning paths based on their individual needs and interests. E-learning content was developed according to a set of learning objectives and was delivered using different media elements such as text, graphics, audio, and video. It provided as much learning support as possible (through explanations, examples, interactivity, feedback, glossaries, online help by phone, or chat) to make learners self-sufficient. Some negative considerations also came up at the same time. Among them, many were questioning us about the efficiency of e-learning given that the standard was traditional learning, in which the teacher and the clients are together in a physical classroom. One question persisted: Is e-Learning as good as traditional learning?

The Major Concerns

Control and reporting. Do we have any way to control the attendance of clients? Was it possible to track them to know when they were online and what they were learning? This matter was most important for the government agencies that were funding trainings, as they needed a way to have proof of attendance.

Pedagogy. What kind of pedagogy is used to provide an opportunity to succeed and to avoid to the extent possible the risk of dropping out? In other words, was online learning efficient for helping clients reach their goals and develop competencies?

Learning assessment. To many, the only possible way to assess learning was to administer a paper exam under the supervision of a teacher. So, in the absence of paper exams and direct supervision, how would it be possible to assess learning?

Presence. Another concern was the absence of others and that the feeling generated from this could lead to dropping out of the class, losing motivation to continue, or poor learning.

In March 2019, we launched a survey spanning the period from 2013–2019 in which we asked our clients what their level of satisfaction was and how efficient our solution was. Among the 200 clients who answered, we collected comments such as "very easy," "fun," "pleasant to read and pleasant to work on," "information easy to reach," "200 quizzes helped us to quickly determine what we knew and what we did not know," and above all "very easy to understand how it works and to connect to it." It seemed our solution was reaching one of our goals: The clients were online and alone, but they were self-sufficient and able to find help on their own. Some clients communicated their appreciation by telling us the following: “EFFA’s e-learning classes are practical, well-structured, and helped me to learn fast. I also appreciated being able to use various media, such as audio, written, and video information. It made it possible to customize the learning experience.”

  • Some others wrote: “The online classes are easy to use. It’s nice and comfortable to study with it.”
  • Some others commented: ”EFFA’s e-Learning classes are truly comfortable to use, especially if you are a working mom like me. It’s available 24/7 and connecting to the class is as easy as opening your emails.”
  • Some wrote: “Learning how to use the new technologies helped me in many ways,” because “learning to work on my own somehow helped me to feel more confident.”
  • Some others said: “It was a good experience, as we also had enough time to learn and practice.”
  • However, some others wrote, “The online classes were truly interesting, but it was a long time to work alone and have little contact with the other people.” These individuals also noted, as they were full-time workers, to be present on chats and forums was hard for them. That is, why some said, “Even if the online classes are practical, I will always prefer physical classes to have the opportunity to talk and discuss directly with others.” For some others, they missed “the warmth of face-to-face interaction.” Finally, clients who came from remote areas of the country experienced Internet connection problems.

The Second Project: Full online solution

Next, we developed a fully online solution. The requirements were the same as the ones presented earlier: Flexibility, active pedagogy, and autonomy were the keywords. Also, the results from this second project are included in the ones listed above. The April 2019 survey included all clients that used e-learning, partially or fully. 

The Third Project: Virtual classrooms

Finally, we developed trainings available only through virtual classes. We started with Skype, moved to Blackboard, and we are now working with Zoom. This was a new way to maintain and modernize our image and to give another option to our clients to get the competencies they need for the funeral services field. Our clients work fully online and they communicate among themselves through electronic devices. We prepared activities to present the virtual classroom solution to the teachers. We led them in the functionalities of the solution, and we organized trial classes in which the teachers were invited to give classes and share their experience regarding how it was working, as well as confirm that the same amount of information and competencies were delivered to the clients. Class management tips were given, too, such as asking clients to shut down their microphones when they were not talking to reduce noise and interferences. These may appear as details to some of us, but they may cause clients needless fatigue. This solution allows students from anywhere in France, including the French territories overseas, to meet during the virtual class. Time zone difference and distance are not a barrier to enrich their knowledge, in real-time, during class discussions on regional, religious, or even cultural funeral practices.

As noted by Somayeh and Al in 2016 concerning the importance of having an efficient way of teaching [2], we put an emphasis on logistics and teachers’ well being to turn this virtual class project into a success. It is of high importance to have the right logistics organized and in place to send class documents on time and be conscious about rapidly answering any questions by phone or email. 

Clients who attended their training by virtual classroom told us the following:

  • “The teachers were integrating everyone during their explanations or the role plays that we were doing, and we all felt like we belonged to the group.”
  • They “appreciated the quality of the image and sound provided by the solution that we worked with.”
  • “I also appreciated having the option to choose between looking at the teacher or the class documents or the chat where the clients were writing comments or asking questions.”
  • “The virtual class was especially welcome, as I cannot leave my home for personal matters.

Even though it was helpful, I missed the contact with the other students.”

  • “The training through the virtual classroom has been a big surprise to me. I never felt remote at any moment, as I was participating with everyone, even though I was located 1000 km from where the class was broadcast.”
  • “The virtual class is a success. Even though we were remote, all of us were well-integrated in the class and able to participate as if we had been in a traditional classroom.”
  • “At the beginning of the class, we adopted some rules, such as not talking all at the same time. I understood afterwards that the rules were helpful for experiencing the virtual classroom in the best conditions.”

Electronic Learning or e-learning: Definition, methods, and tools

With regard to what we found by talking with our clients, we wondered whether the same concerns appeared in the scientific literature. In preparing this case study, we noticed the concerns expressed by our clients were widely shared by others and for many years. We also wondered if the choices we made were shared by researchers working in the pedagogical field of online learning.

Defining e-Learning and virtual classrooms. The answers to these questions indicate that our point of view regarding e-learning is similar to the perspective other observers have. We can state at this point that e-learning is a way of studying away from the classroom. Although our colleagues are not physically next to us, the internet is a medium that reunites the participants. This type of learning can be synchronous or asynchronous.

The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of e-Learning is “studying at home using computers and courses provided on the Internet.” The Economic Times of India says that e-learning is “a learning system based on formalized teaching but with the help of electronic resources.” The FAO, the United Nations’ agency, stated in 2011 that e-learning could be defined in terms of being self-paced and instructor-facilitated/led, whereby learners are alone and completely independent, while facilitated and instructor-led e-learning courses provide different levels of support from tutors and instructors as well as collaboration among learners [3]. E-learning approaches can combine different types of e-learning components, including: 

  • e-learning content;
  • e-tutoring, e-coaching, e-mentoring;
  • collaborative learning; and
  • virtual classrooms.

Our definition of the virtual classroom is an online learning environment that allows for live interaction between teachers and learners as they are participating in learning activities for real-time collaboration. The teaching and learning environment can offer course materials, engagement, and interaction with one another, and group work. Sophia Bernazzani argued the key distinction of a virtual classroom is that it takes place in a live, synchronous setting [4]. Online coursework can involve the viewing of prerecorded, asynchronous material, but virtual classroom settings involve live interaction between instructors and participants. Justin Ferriman from described a virtual classroom as an online classroom that allows participants to communicate with one another, view presentations or videos, interact with other participants, and engage with resources in work groups [5]. It allows learners and instructors around the world to participate in live classes to collaborate and interact. The low costs of virtual classrooms are considered to be a major advantage, as learners can save money by not having to worry about travel expenses. Participants also save time, since all that is needed is an Internet connection.

Teaching methods. In 2016, Somayeh and Al stated teaching methods are classified into conventional and distance teaching methods [2]. Conventional teaching is teacher-centered. In this regard, traditional methods of education alone are not able to respond to the movement of knowledge and constantly changing needs of communities in the world of informatics.

This definition represents the way we at EFFA are especially engaged in the concept of lifelong learning. The university level is not the last educational level in life. Education lasts throughout one’s professional life. Thus, gaining mastery from trainers with modern methods of education will be particularly important. The use of modern methods of education is so important that some education experts consider mastery over the mentioned methods to be more important than a teacher's scientific knowledge and scientific information. Among our change management activities, as we stated earlier, we train our trainers to be comfortable with online teaching. 

Interaction, Persistence, and e-learning

Stenger stated dropout rates for online courses still tend to be higher than those for traditional courses [6]. We knew we had to find a way to encourage persistence in education, and we understood that two major efforts had to be taken. First, we have to engage online students, it is important to incorporate activities that allow students to get actively involved. Online students should be encouraged to engage in hands-on learning and put theory into practice, whether that means gathering data, going out and conducting face-to-face interviews, analyzing case studies, or developing and investigating their own questions. EFFA’s teachers provide factual stories during their trainings, which helps clients to relate to the stories and to then integrate faster the learning objective. Second, we use ways to increase interactions and collaboration between peers in online learning include group emails, video conferencing, discussion boards, and online groups, as well as student blogs.

Although it is important to provide students with frequent feedback and support as they work their way through an online learning class, much of a student’s success depends on their own persistence and motivation to see things through. Lin and Vassar suggest, “the key to success in online learning is individual self-governance and the feeling of personal autonomy” [7]. They also point out factors such as personal goals, communication skills, and study environment can affect a student’s success.

Methods, Pedagogy, and e-Learning

The scientific literature on education features research done on the topic of efficient pedagogy. Jiang, Parent, and Eastmond found “interaction” is generally considered to be critical to the effectiveness of e-learning [8]. Students had a better success rate in instructor-led online courses than in independent-study online courses. Bennett-Levy reported a supported training group had a significantly higher program completion rate than an independent group [9]. 

Thalheimer claims varied results can occur from online learning: e-learning can outperform the classroom, it can perform worse, or it can perform about the same [10]. Meta-analyses indicate e-learning can be more effective, but it does not have to be. What makes e-learning effective is its design elements and the learning methods used [11]. New technologies, such as classroom response devices and Web 2.0 tools, can facilitate many of these activities both inside and outside of the classroom. Incorporating active learning approaches into paleontology courses can help instructors clarify their course goals and learning outcomes while empowering students to succeed. 


Our main purpose in creating e-Learning programs and using virtual classrooms was to be able to make a difference in the French education market and to provide useful training to our clients regardless of their cultural and educational background. With regard to the solutions that we have created, we consider our experience to be positive. We created a reputation for quality and innovation within our vocational center, and we have a high and confirmed client satisfaction. Our clients have landed new jobs or have successfully created their own commercial activity at the end of their training. We have also extended our client base and we now have clients from the French territories overseas in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, South America, North America, and South Pacific.

Based on our experiences and the educational scientific literature, we can state, at this point, that learning effectiveness is dependent not only on the learning modality (e-learning versus classroom) but also on the learning methods used including factors such as realistic practice sessions, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback. We used a rigorous instructional design process, first determining the needs and deciding what we wished to accomplish, and only then determining whether to develop classroom training or e-learning. Interactions [8] are an important factor in helping students to achieve their goals in their coursework. These interactions can be provided through various means, such as blogs, forum, and videos at the beginning and at the end of the class that provides tips to help the clients understand what they will learn, why they are studying, what the purposes of the class are, what are the resources available to help them, and what they will achieve by completing the module. Having teachers that know how to teach online and using integrative class management is an important factor for clients’ success. All that has been described is also a way to sustain clients’ motivation. We are also exploring other ways to share class documents and quizzes to assess the students’ comprehension of the various subjects.

To summarize, our clients have the feeling of being a part of a group, and this group is composed of teachers, colleagues, and our team supporting the training activity in our vocational center.

Considering the development of the training market in France, we decided to go a step further by providing training through virtual classrooms. This new service is provided through a platform where the teachers and the clients are connected all at the same time so they can see each other in real-time. The documents used in the class are sent the day before the lecture, as is a list of questions to prepare the clients on the topic that will be discussed.

We understood many clients were looking to divert as little time as possible away from home and the office. The virtual classroom was a good choice because clients can follow their training from anywhere, giving the flexibility to follow the training from the office or home

The clients have been asked to describe their experience studying through a virtual class. Their experiences were mostly positive. The first subscribers were wondering how they would go through this experience. They were looking at it through the lens of traditional classes given online. We told them the course was designed for adult education. Even though we had a very structured program provided by the Home Office Ministry, we were following techniques based on change management to help clients who might experience a hard time studying online. 

Based on our experiences, Thalheimer describes best what we did to achieve success: communication, relevant programming, credibility, teachers and the respect of the given word, form the bases of our courses, whether the classes are given online or by traditional methods [10].


[1] Belksy, L. Where online learning goes next. Harvard Business Review. October 4, 2019. 

[2] Somayeh, M., Dehghani, M., Mozaffari, F., Ghasemnegad, S., Hakimi, H., and Samaneh, B. The effectiveness of E-learning in learning: A review of the literature. International Journal of Medical Research & Health Sciences 5, 2 (2016), 86-91. 

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). A guide for designing and developing e-learning courses. 2011.

[4] Bernazzani, S. What is a virtual classroom? Owl Labs, May 5, 2020.

[5] Ferriman, J. Characteristics of a virtual classroom. LearnDash. April 1, 2019.

[6] Stenger, M. Top 5 research-based online learning tips. eLearning Industry. June 25, 2018.

[7] Lin, B. and Vassar, J. Determinants for success in online learning communities. International Journal of Web Based Communities 5, 3 (2009), 340.

[8] Jiang, M., Parent, S., and Eastmond, D. Effectiveness of web-based learning opportunities in a competency-based program. International Journal on e-Learning 5, 3 (2006).

[9] Benett-Levy, J. Therapist skills: A cognitive model of their acquisition and refinement. Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy 34, 1 (2006), 57–78.

[10] Thalheimer, W.  Does eLearning work?  What the scientific research says! 2017.

[11] Yacobucci, M. Using active learning strategies to promote deep learning in the undergraduate paleontology classroom. The Paleontological Society Special Publications 12 (2012), 135­–154.

About the Author

Yves Messier, an adult trainer for 25 years, develops innovative and modern adult training (andragogy) programs in Canada and in France. He focuses on studying how to use devices/computers and the Internet for effective learning. Yves Messier develops training strategies using e-learning, mobile learning, and blended learning in relation to human, political, and economic factors.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from [email protected].

Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2020/08-3421470 $15.00


  • There are no comments at this time.