Its a depressing fact but the drop out rate on e-learning programmes is disturbingly high. (see for example: http://jolt.merlot.org/Vol2_No2_TylerSmith.htm )
On this programme as a whole (not the virtual leader module specifically) it is even higher than expected.
Students suffer various unexpected crises during the year ranging from pregnancy to death of a family member, with everything in between - marriage, divorce, nervous breakdown, personal illness and redundancy.
By far the biggest pressure - the one students most often cite - appears to be work, and having worked in and around the NHS for 25 years, I know the demands placed on managers at all levels. Throw into the mix the flu pandemic, the recession and the obligatory reorganisation of services and the turbulence is clearly too much for most people.
However, in England, a sister programme for NHS managers - similar content, same academic level, same demographic, similar numbers - suffers nothing like the same rates of attrition. And this despite the fact that students get less face to face workshops and contact with tutors. It is in fact a "supported distance learning programme" whereas the Scottish NHS programme is described as "blended learning" - that is, it mixes on-line and face to face support with self study.
I think there are a few variables at play:
in the English course, students have all the materials they need presented in hard copy.
in the Scottish programme, students have to research materials on line from references provided, using a free, university provided electronic library resource.
In England students have two workshops per module but beyond that are left to get on and study by themselves
In Scotland they have two workshops but are then expected to contribute to an online discussion board and complete week by week activities on line.
In England students generally pay a contribution for the programme.
In Scotland it is free of charge and there is no penalty for withdrawal.
In England tutors are generally drawn from the same organisation - the Trust's training lead or another senior manager who is enthusaistic about management and leadership development.
In Scotland, the tutors are employed by the awarding university.
Some of these factors would suggest - intuitively - that the Scottish students get a far better deal: more support, no financial cost, less "supervision" from their employers, access to wider resources and up to date technology.
However, I think the act of paying for something secures greater commitment, not less, and the involvement of trainers from the same organisation may tend to make students more reluctant to give up.
It is perhaps too easy for students to email their resignation to a distant university administrator than it is to go and tell their line manager or the hospital's training lead.
One student recently emailed me that he had simply "lost enthusiam for the course". Would he have said that (even if it were true) if he was explaining to his line manager why the Board's investment of nearly £2000 in his development (never mind "cost" of study leave) was being wasted? Would he have thought twice if that money had been his own, and not the NHS?
As I say, I think there are many factors at play and simply forcing students to stay the course by imposing a financial penalty is not the only answer. Certainly many of the students withdrawing report a lack of support at work and protected study time as factors in their decisions.
Like all complex problems, this is going to require more than one solution.