Some believe that students may not need intensive tech resources to engage in active learning. Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the U.K., conducted an experiment in which he cut a hole in the wall, separating his office building from the adjacent slum, and installed a computer on a shelf. The village children managed to teach themselves enough English to operate various programs on the computer.
Repeating the experiment in other villages produced the same results: Even when the computer contained complex educational information on DNA replication in English, the children mastered it. Mitra, who in 2013 received a TED prize for his work, has partnered with the tech company NIIT to launch Hole-in-the-Wall Education, a program aimed at facilitating learning for impoverished children through free, public access to computers.
MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are another education innovation that may help change the classroom as we know it. When colleges offer lectures online, they are essentially taking the old classroom model to cyberspace, dramatically increasing a professor's reach.
Still, most MOOCs today are simply extensions of the traditional lecture-based teaching model, and students are no more engaged than they are in static classroom lectures.
Read MoreOnline courses trim billions in personnel training
In addition, most people who enroll in MOOCs fail to finish the courses. And MOOCs mostly reach people who already have a fair bit of education. Some 74 percent of people taking MOOCs already have a college or graduate degree, and almost 40 percent are in the U.S., according to moocs.com.
Some education experts believe MOOCs can go further. Maggie Little, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown, joined with several colleagues to create and launch a MOOC on bioethics last spring. This year, she plans to use the MOOC as a sort of living textbook for the Introduction to Bioethics class.
The class will meet twice a week, Little said, working on projects and the like. "In bioethics, you can't really tell if you understand something unless you write a paper," she said. The MOOC was expensive to create, she said, but it can now be delivered to anyone, and anyone can use it as a text for a class.
Little believes today's typical classroom structure is neither educationally rich nor financially sustainable. "We can't afford to be what we are now for much longer unless we do something radically different," she said. "It doesn't mean the disappearance of brick-and-mortar places. But it means rethinking what is the value added of having a highly personal, highly immersive experience."
—By Kelley Holland, special to CNBC.com