The opposition parties were among those airing their views last week at a conference on "The Social Implications of Information and Communication Technologies" organised by PICT (the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies), for educationists and industry.
"With information technology and distance learning techniques, we can now massively expand the scope of flexible, individual learning," said Mr Ashdown.
"We can transform the delivery of training in the workplace. We can hugely expand the roles of our schools and our universities. We can transform our education system into a top-quality, mass-participation, multi-chance network of lifelong learning opportunities in which education can take place at home as well as at school, at work, even at leisure and in which a school becomes less and less a building-based institution and more and more the centre of an education network available to every age group and extending into every corner and crevice of our community."
The Liberal Democrats would earmark a Pounds 2 billion boost for education, he said, "paid for, if necessary, by an extra penny on income tax". But he pointed to partnerships with industry for creating the infrastructure and equipping schools. One example he gave was the collaboration between Merseyside, John Moores University and the CRT training organisation to provide Pounds 3. 5 million worth of multimedia computers in local schools (see The TES, March 17).
Chris Smith MP, Labour's heritage spokesman, echoed Mr Ashdown's recognition of the importance for education and the economy of making the right decisions for getting the network infrastructure in place, with industry making the investment.
He said that a strong regulatory framework would help bring about this new world where schoolchildren would be able to visit London's Science Museum without leaving their classroom (the Science Museum has just announced its own site on the Internet on the World Wide Web).
He listed some of the principles that should shape the superhighway. These included: making it a "truly nationwide network", including rural areas; making the best social uses of the network, like open access in public buildings; not allowing providers to dictate the uses of their networks; protecting the right to charge for creative material by updating copyright laws which would include new definitions of copying for electronic publications.
Most important, the UK should exploit its advantages. The communications industry expected 14 per cent annual growth in the early in the next century, and 80 per cent of the materials would be in English.
"That represents enormous advantages," said Mr Smith. "We have very strong institutions like the BBC, the British Council and the Open University, that are practised in distance learning." By putting in the regulatory framework with attendant principles like open access, "We can be proud when we look back in a decade or two at the revolution that has gone on, probably more profound than the invention of the printing press more than half a millenium ago, and be proud of what we did."
The focus on schools and IT, however, came mainly from Paddy Ashdown and BT's outspoken research boss Peter Cochrane , who both warned that schools and teachers needed more support. Research showed that, with multimedia, children learn 50 per cent quicker and retain 80 per cent more, said Mr Cochrane: "the teacher has to move from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side".