Dirt path cuts corner in square of grass avoiding longer route on tarmac footpath

Desire lines in online education: programme design

This is the first of two posts exploring the metaphor of ‘desire lines’ and its applicability to programme design and learning design. In a recent webinar, Quentin McAndrew (2022) drew parallels between the stackability of online learning and the way that people will organically form new routes that may deviate from planned and paved paths, for example by forming shortcuts across grassed areas or around obstacles. This post explains the advantages of enabling a range of educational routes as part of programme design in its broadest sense, and some of the considerations required to pave the unplanned path. In the second post, Desire Lines in Learning Design, desire lines are explored as both a metaphor for flexible learning and with caution for learning designers in relation to ensuring appropriate challenge in learning.

Desire lines

People will take the most direct path to their intended destination, if able to do so. Where a path is planned and paved for pedestrians to take a particular route, if there is a more direct route visible that deviates from the paved path, then assuming it is more convenient and safe to do so, the direct, off-path route may be taken. This is a known concept in landscape architecture where these paths are called ‘desire paths’, formed as a result of people identifying the shortest line to where they wish to go, called ‘desire lines’ (Wikipedia, 2022; Bramley, 2018). A common example is where there are grass verges and paved paths that border the verge. Instead of following the path, people cut across the grass in a diagonal line. A dedicated desire paths Flickr group provides multiple examples. 

Eventually, with more use, these paths become established and may even become formalised, paved routes. Bramely’s (2018) article describes a case where desire lines have been deliberately left to emerge in order to inform formalisation of paths.

“Michigan State University didn’t put in pavements when new buildings were created. Instead, it waited for students to create their own paths.”

Bramley (2018)

As a physical representation of what universities could do in the online education space, there are fascinating analogies, albeit complex, for programme design. At an extreme, translating the physical approach adopted by Michigan State University to online programme design, learners would be presented with a map of content, but be left to decide how they sequence it and complete it themselves. How far degree programme leaders and designers go to enable or prohibit deviation from a set learning path, and what opportunities there are to enable learners to inform these paths are interesting discussions to be had in programme teams.

Applying desire lines to stackability

In higher education programme design, it is the educator and institution that defines the structure of the programme of learning. Degree programmes comprise modules, which may vary in length and credit value between institutions, but each module will have a set of defined learning outcomes. In effective programme design, there is alignment between module learning outcomes, learning and teaching methods, and assessment, with graduate attributes at the programme level (Sharpe and Armellini, 2020). Therefore, on completion of the modules and completion of the programme as a whole, a learner can evidence the graduate attributes as programme outcomes. 

In campus-based programmes, it is common for a set sequence of modules to form a programme of study to stage learning, for example from introductory to advanced skills and concepts. At a fundamental level, this sequence is formed by modules being tied to terms or years of study through teaching calendars and enable progression of learning term-to-term or year-to-year. However, in online programmes there is greater prevalence of flexibility of sequence, with learners able to ‘hop on’ to modules in any order. In these cases module designs cannot assume pre-requisite completion of other modules, enabling greater flexibility whilst also forcing modules to become more ‘stand-alone’ in nature. In both structures, a learner is required to complete a set number of modules to meet the programme outcomes. The equivalence is the fixed path, with a pre-laid and set route to an end goal. Each flagstone must be stepped on, even if the order changes.

With reference to the flexibility of stackable programmes of study, McAndrew (2022) argued that not all learners need to take a set path. Programmes of study for an individual may not be the same programme defined by an institution, if a bespoke learning journey better meets an individual’s learning goals. Stackability, the option for learners to participate in courses and modules incrementally, rather than committing to a full programme from the outset, provides alternative paths for learners to take, but still reach the same destination. In the case of microcredentials (for example in the form of unbundled, credit-bearing modules from a programme), these represent a balance between short course learning that addresses immediate needs or provides an introduction to a topic, with the academic depth of formal education. By taking microcredentials, learners are conscious of the existence of a full programme, but addressing learning outcomes according to their own priorities. What stackability affords is the option for learners to take desire paths, but also to rejoin the main path at an appropriate time.

Programme design allowing for desire lines

How learners join and deviate from a set path of learning will be informed by how well the planned route visibly meets their learning needs. Desire lines are formed when barriers to learners meeting their goals are in place in the form of structural decisions made in programme design. There are mediating factors, such as financial cost, time commitment, place of learning, study/work/life balance and the actual course content that may influence the decision of a learner to stick to a predefined programme or seek out a desire line to outcomes that are better suited to their needs. The decision that programme leaders can make is whether or not to fence off the grass, restricting learners to following one, pre-defined path, or whether different routes will be permitted. That decision is enacted in terms of the ‘unbundleability’ of the programme. 

Flexibility of ‘standalone’ modules, that still form a coherent programme, enables learners a ‘way into’ academic study. For some learners, the provision of and permission to take an alternative route is the difference between participating in further study or not. In some way, desire lines are created when the prepared learning journey is perceived to be unachievable.

“Whilst our interviewees all acknowledged the future growth in unbundled educational provision, and the benefits this offers in terms of flexibility for learners, they also cautioned around the educational impacts of disaggregating educational content from educational experience, and the crucial role of universities to act as navigators of learning journeys.”

Morris, et al. (2020:14)

Desire paths that last

Stretching the analogy a little further, desire paths are typically dirt tracks across grassed areas. They are not accessible to all, get muddy in wet weather and may have one or two trip hazards that a tarmac surface would otherwise smooth over. The consideration required is in how learners are supported across these rougher terrains. Decisions that learners make as to what modules to participate in, in what order, and towards what learning outcomes do require educational structure. As Morris, et al. (2020) identified, within an unbundled educational landscape the learning journey still requires guidance and navigation. Adopting a desire path requires learners to know where they are heading towards. 

There may be pioneers, who begin to furrow new paths without knowing the final destination. Educators can be receptive to this by understanding where learners are coming from and what their study goals are. In professional learning, this is common practice in the form of needs analysis. During teaching, learners are guided towards refining their intended outcomes and through reflection and post-course evaluation, both educator and learner can assess the success of the development journey. Programme designers can put in place mechanisms for responding to learners’ needs as they arise, offering flexibility through accreditation of prior learning and experience, for example. Drawing upon the achievements of learners after they have completed study can also be used to demonstrate to other learners how courses bring unintended outcomes. Therefore there is a balance in providing a structure, allowing deviation from it, and being proactive in finding new ways that programmes meet learners’ needs.

In a proactive way, programme leaders and designers can surface the programme outcomes and the learning path through short courses and modules that may lead towards a range of intended goals. Ensuring that whilst each module can be taken independently, the outcomes at a programme level can still be achieved, and that modules may form part of both formal and informal programmes of study. In the context of multidisciplinary learning, Moon (2002) emphasised the need to look at the “coherence of the programme” in terms of the ability for learners to bridge disciplinary boundaries formed by content and ways of learning specific to different subjects. In the same way, learners entering academic study from professional learning, short courses and through microcredentials, will need a programme level approach to bridging disciplines and study approaches that differ between these forms of learning. Techniques such as linking modules to programme outcomes, and crucially, linking module content to ‘the bigger picture’ of professions, discipline and individuals’ work context set modular learning within a programme of lifelong study.

Desire lines as a metaphor in programme design therefore reflects needs of learners that are unaddressed by planned learning paths. Whilst the metaphor breaks down a little in that desire paths usually start and end in the same place as the longer path, in the context presented here, desire lines and desire paths are opening new avenues for learning that may begin at different places and have differing destinations. In opening programmes of study to a wider learner audience, programme structures that enable meeting of outcomes in a variety of ways at the programme level by mixing modules, recognising prior learning and creating coherent learning experiences, will enable institutions to respond to desire lines and pave new learning paths. 


  1. Bramley, E. V. (2018). Desire paths: the illicit trails that defy urban planners, The Guardian, 5 October 2018.
  2. McAndrew, Q. (2022). Introduction to Stackability, Building Degree Success with Stackability: Stories from the Field, Coursera Webinar, 14 September 2022.
  3. Moon, J. (2002). The Module and Programme Development Handbook. London: Kogan Page.
  4. Morris, N. P., Ivancheva, M., Coop, T., Mogliacci, R. and Swinnerton B. (2020) Negotiating growth of online education in higher education, International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17.
  5. Sharpe, R. and Armellini, A. (2022). Designing for Learning in Organisations, in Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (eds), Rethinking Pedagogy For A Digital Age: Principles and practices of design, 3rd Edition. London: Routledge. pp. 143-148.
  6. Wikipedia (2022). Desire paths. Wikipedia article retrieved 25 September 2022.





One response to “Desire lines in online education: programme design”

  1. […] of ‘desire lines’ as applied to programme design and learning design. In the first post Desire Lines in Programme Design, the unnecessary barriers of formal programme architectures were reconsidered through ideas of […]

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