Thomas Lohrer is a true pioneer of digital teaching methods. At a time when just six percent of the German population had a smartphone and the first major audio streaming service, Spotify, was still learning to tie its shoelaces, the experienced horticulturist was publishing weekly episodes of his podcast 'Pflanzenschutz im Gartenbau' (Plant Protection in Horticulture). Some 140 episodes were released between 2008 and 2011, and the podcast was awarded second place in the 'Non-Profit' category for Germany at the European Podcast Awards 2010. "Around the turn of the millennium, I was excited to offer a new elective module on the subject of new media as part of the Horticulture degree programme, looking at how to research data online, how to take digital photographs and so on. I spent a lot of time looking at new formats and one of the things that I discovered was podcasts," the Head of the Plant Protection Laboratory at HSWT recalls, stressing: "Without the dedicated cross-departmental team and the fantastic IT support I received, it would not have been possible to make the podcast."
It is not just podcasts that Thomas Lohrer uses to share his knowledge – he prefers to prepare content in a multimedia format and is often a trailblazer. "Right from the start, it was important to me to make knowledge accessible and to do so as effectively as possible. I also wanted to prepare this information in a way that lots of different types of learners can use. The more I investigated all the different possibilities, the more frequently I thought to myself, you need to incorporate this, that and the other, and so it would become more and more multimedia-based," he explains. The continuous development of technology and the internet also played a role. At the start, there was a CD with information on fungal diseases in vegetables for students and experts, then an online course on pests in trees and shrubs, followed by the first online course in a blended learning format for people working in horticulture.
The target groups were not always open to new ideas. Lohrer and his team put in a lot of valuable work to convince them to give it a go. "How sore our fingers would get with all the phone calls we made to promote the benefits of our online courses," Lohrer recalls with a smile. For him, it was obvious: "You have to start where people are and go from there." The same applies to the free online course on plant protection that Lohrer and his team created as an OPEN vhb course for the Virtual University of Bavaria and which was awarded the Comenius EduMedia Medal last year as a pioneering digital educational medium. But for Lohrer, the best feedback comes directly from the users: "'I know your voice,' someone once said to me at a plant protection conference. It turned out that he was a loyal listener of my podcast."
Thomas Lohrer has been working at HSWT since 1994, or rather he started at the State Horticultural College and Research Institute, which was later integrated into the university through the Federal Research Station of Horticulture Weihenstephan. Among other things, he appreciates the freedom that allows him to dabble in different areas and try out new ideas. "And the fantastic team," the Bonn native added, "in which I’m the only man."
His hobbyhorse has always been plant protection. Even during his studies in Osnabrück and Hanover, he focused primarily on this area. He combined this passion with photography and the editing of texts early on, activities that he still enjoys today. Consequently, a host of specialist books on pests and beneficial species have made it onto bookshelves over the years.
And how will new media progress in the field of plant protection? "I think that there is still progress to be made in diagnosis and the transfer of knowledge in particular. In the not-too-distant future, I can imagine specialists, for example if they need to diagnose a pest infestation, examining the plant using special glasses in augmented or virtual reality. Blended learning with its many facets is already very well established in teaching, and I think that this will continue."
Outside of work, Thomas Lohrer leads a more analogue life, and spends some of his time on the dance floor. For the past five years, he and his partner have been learning ballroom dancing and less traditional partner dances like West Coast Swing. "I can’t actually dance at all, I’m more of a thinker," the 57-year-old says with a laugh. When he is not gliding across the floor himself, he likes to go to the cabaret (as a member of the audience). The Rhinelander has also enjoyed the theatre, including community theatre, since he was young. So there are a few things that Thomas Lohrer is looking forward to once this current coronavirus situation ends – after all, it may be possible to learn about plant protection on an online platform, but dance and theatre require a wooden floor.