The Desire Path of Empty Classrooms

Karen Costa
4 min readDec 1, 2022


thoughts on the state of #HigherEd at the end of the fall ’22 term

Today is December 1, 2022, and December 1, 2019 was three years ago. Three years. What have we learned, #HigherEd? Where will we be three years from now?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I’ve been seeing some trending posts on Twitter (where I remain, because Twitter has been and continues to be a lifeline for disabled, marginalized, and chronically ill folks and no one has offered us a better alternative) with pictures of empty classrooms, often coupled with the question: how do we get them back?

This is the wrong question.

Desire Paths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about desire paths, a concept from the design field.

Photo by Ugne Vasyliute on Unsplash

Your town is building a new park, and some engineers, architects, and designers gather together to decide where everything goes. The path should go by the river so people can take in the gorgeous view, they decide. They pave their path and wait for the people to come. When the park opens, people being people decide to instead cut through a wooded area to get to the basketball courts and swing sets. Over time, a path is worn into the grass by their footsteps and bike tires. A desire path.

Another example of a desire path is something I’ve written about before: communication channels with students. Let’s say, for example, that you want students to use their college emails to communicate with you, and vice versa. You tell them this repeatedly, and you give them your Google Voice phone number for emergencies only. Pretty soon though, you’re getting constant texts from students with all sorts of non-emergency questions. No one’s using email. No one except you. Your students are forming a desire path. They are showing you what they want and where they are. You can continue to try to force them onto the paved path, but that will likely fail and exhaust you in the process. What if, instead, you met them where they are (with appropriate boundaries of course)? What if you paved the desire path?

The more I see pictures of empty on-site classrooms, the more I keep thinking about desire paths. Our students are showing us what they want and need. They are showing us our present and future. It seems though, that much of #HigherEd is sitting over on the paved path, wondering why students aren’t showing up. Students are showing up, just not in the ways that we want. They’re showing us very clearly that our paved path doesn’t work for them.

The better question is: when are we going to start listening?

A Return to Normalcy

The idea that the higher education of December 2022 should look anything like the higher education of December 2019 is truly preposterous after all we’ve been through, especially considering that the higher education of December 2019 failed to meet the needs of most students. I’m not going to review college completion rates with y’all because I’m tired. We have been looking at the same abysmal completion rates for the entirety of my career in higher education. You know what they are.

Back to normal. Truly preposterous.

Our students are showing us their desire path. To me, it looks like a very clear call for higher education to adapt to their needs, to this moment, and to our shared future.

Adaptation. What a concept!

This is not just about modality. This is not just about on-site or online.

Does the 15-week semester work for most students? Well, did it ever?

Does the credit hour system work for most students? A system that moves too fast for some and too slow for others? A system that fails to recognize students’ prior learning? Well, did it ever?

Do primarily on-site courses work for most students? For disabled and chronically ill students? Well, did they ever?

Do courses detached from the realities of students’ lives work for most students? Courses that don’t adapt because they’re not built to adapt? Well, did they ever?

I have a proposal for a quick way to measure how well your institution has been adapting by measuring what seems to me to be the lowest of low-hanging fruit: the extent to which higher ed has aligned with the survival of the human species. What percentage of your institution’s courses address climate action? Prepare students for the current and future climate emergency? We can call it your adaptability score. My guess for the average for most courses outside of the environmental sciences? 10% if we’re lucky. If we’re lucky.

The question is not how we get them back into the on-site classroom. The question is, when are we going to start listening? How long are we going to stand on this paved path, alone?



Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.