from May 1, 2023 to May 31, 2023
Published on May 3, 2023 Updated on April 10, 2024

The Portrait of EUTOPIA (May 2023) - Prof. Muriel Epstein and the CRC 'Inclusive Education'

Portrait of EUTOPIA Muriel Epstein
Portrait of EUTOPIA Muriel Epstein
Can you introduce yourself (your academic career, research, and work)? 

My name is Muriel Epstein, I am an associate professor at CY Cergy Paris Université in Education Sciences. My research deals with digital environments and professional development for teachers. 

20 years ago, I was a math teacher, and I could see some of my students dropping out of school, so I began a PhD in sociology studying dropouts. At the end of my PhD, I founded an association with the goal of promoting active learning among students in order to prevent them from dropping out. Our main project was to have them create lessons, videos and put them on YouTube or other channels, and 200 dropout kids built an amazing history MOOC to help their little brothers or sisters pass the exam we have in France at the end of middle school. 800 middle school students watched it. We received a prize for the “most innovative MOOC”. 

At that time, the only leverage I had to foster active learning were the digital transformations that were happening, because digital transformation was bringing us funding. So, I ended up at the head of the association, welcoming 500 kids, with 40 people with different occupations helping out (some were teachers, some were animators, some would just pop up and say ‘Hey, it looks great! Can I help?’), and my main challenge became: “how can I train all these people so that they can change education around them?”  

This is now the focus of my work: I’m fighting for inclusive education and exploring how we can use digital transformations to train teachers for inclusive education, with all this linking back to preventing kids from dropping out. 

How did you first hear about EUTOPIA and get engaged in EUTOPIA activities?  

I became an associate professor in CY University during the 2020 lockdown. Working at CY I started to hear about EUTOPIA in newsletters. Then in 2021 came the opening for the Young Leaders Academy programme. I honestly thought it was too big for me, I was just arriving, and I was very new, thinking about myself as an intern, but a colleague of mine told me that I should go for it; that it was what I wanted as a European Project and so on. So, I applied, and I got accepted to be a YLA! I really need to thank this colleague. 

And once you have this great group of YLA people around you, when you begin to know them, when you get the means to travel to other countries, then it becomes a lot easier to really learn and be a part of EUTOPIA. It becomes a virtuous cycle: you know who to call, apply to different things, and hopefully, these applications work out in the end! 

Can you explain what is a CRC and how yours get started? 

A CRC is a Connected Research Community, and as the name implies, its goal is to connect the research between the partner universities of the alliance. The CRC I lead, called Inclusive Education, got started because at CY, we already had a Connected Learning Community (CLC) in collaboration with the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra Barcelona (VUB) in Spain. This CLC is called Urban Education.  

The CRC started with meeting my colleague of the CLC at UPF and thinking that we should do research on our teaching.  The VUB team agreed and then the head of the “inclusion department” at Goteborg University joined. 

Can you expand on the Connected Learning Community that was the base of your Connected Research Community? 

Absolutely. It’s ‘Urban Education’, and it is led by the VUB. The VUB team organizes it in a really ‘democratic’ way, in the sense that the first thing they did was ask everyone what we were expecting, what we were ready to do, and then they tried to meet everyone expectations They’re a big efficient team who are used to group work. The CLC is transdisciplinary and gathers people from geography, design, literature and all around from any area that can offer a different point of view on “Urban Education”. 

The idea of urban education in Belgium, is what in France we would call ‘disadvantaged areas education’. The CLC just organized, in March, a week of intensive programs in Brussels, at VUB.  I came with 3 students of CYU and a colleague. We all learned a lot. For instance, in disadvantaged areas, most students speak at least four languages. They speak Dutch, French, English, and a language that they speak at home, like Hindi, Arabic, or Chinese, etc.. So, the concept of ‘Urban Education’ has much to do with multilingualism, inclusion issues of poorer kids, diversity, geography and territory, and how schools interact with their environments. In a sense, Urban Education is close to what we could do in France with Education in REPs (Prioritized Education Areas / Networks).  

What is your role as the head contact of the CRC ‘Inclusive Education’, and what has the CRC accomplished since its creation? 

As the main contact person, I’m simply trying to spread the word about it, and coordinate it. For example, when we got the news that we had to spend our entire budget before November 2022, I was the one who broke the news to everybody and then organized meetings so we could update our plans. 

My main goal is to try to do the same thing that the VUB is doing in the Connected Learning Community, that is: coordinating everybody’s goals, taking everyone’s input into account and creating a group synergy. Though I have to say our group does that on its own already. It’s a group thing more than anything else, and one of my contributions is to make our activities known, like, for example, doing this interview with you! We all know we must care for impact and publication, and we are all already driving research. 

As for what we’ve done, there was an initial two-day meeting in Paris where we first all met, shared our work, and visited the area where I am based in the city of Gennevilliers. CY has a campus there, and it is in a disadvantaged area, so it was very interesting for our “urban education” CLC… We organized a visit to a middle school with the help of the city hall. In that middle school, they have a special class gathering 13–14-year-old students with a range of issues. There’d be autistic children with behavioural and anger issues, some who cannot speak French, etc., and all these kids were put in a single class. And when we observed this class, it was very quiet. All the kids worked individually or in small groups; it was like walking into a library and seeing people calmly working everywhere. Some of them wore headphones, and our colleagues from Gothenburg thought that they were autistic children because, in Sweden that’s what they do to protect them from ambient noise. Still, in fact the children with the headphones were non-French speakers listening to translations of the lesson they were working on. So, in effect, we could not guess wich issues affected which student just looking at them, which I feel is very good proof of inclusion. This inclusive class in the Collège Édouard Vaillant was very interesting, and thanks to this visit, our lab is now working with the teachers of this class on a research project. 

The main result is that our symposium on teacher education for inclusive education within our CRC was accepted by the European Education Research Association for the European Conference on Education and Research, scheduled to take place in August in Glasgow. It is one the biggest conference you can get in in European Education, and we got accepted with amazing reviews, too; we’re very proud of that. The VUB team made a meta-study on meta-studies, and they came up with 10 points, 10 principles that should be followed to implement inclusive education. Each of us then used that as a grid to analyse and grade the reality of how inclusive education is implemented in our respective countries. The goal of this first symposium, in our view, is to create a baseline of knowledge, to know the state of inclusive education in our countries because before we can start working on building something new, we need to know what is already there. 

What’s in store for the future of this CRC? 

We want to do two things. The first is to publish this obviously. The second would be to start a research action, maybe merging part of the CRC program and one of the CLC. Now that we all have started to work together, both in the Learning Community and the Research Community, we began to write, for example, a glossary of all the different definitions and how they differ from country to country, to have them converge into a single usable definition to use in our common research. This will be helpful to go on. We also started a little research on our CRC and how we can train teachers in VUB and CY, we might try to extend this to the whole CRC and even to Eutopia. 

In the long term, we want to be able to train European and EUTOPIAn teachers in inclusive education. That’s the big picture, at least. But in a more restrained sense, we wish to continue building collaborative research projects, building teaching frameworks for inclusive education, and strengthening our common point.