Generational attitudes about A.I. in the classroom were turned on their head on Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference.
A Gen Z audience member expressed skepticism over A.I.’s long-term educational benefits, saying ChatGPT couldn’t do anything other than spit out the right homework answers, while Chegg’s boomer CEO Dan Rosensweig displayed uncharacteristic enthusiasm about A.I.’s ability to help students with their schoolwork.
“I was a Chegg user but not because I gave a fuck about learning,” says Nadya Okamoto, who graduated from Harvard in 2021. “But because it gave me answers to problem sets. I meet a lot of young students out there that aren’t necessarily interested in using ChatGPT for learning. They’re using it because it makes it easier to complete homework.”
Chegg is an education company providing a subscription service that helps students with homework and studying. Its business has recently been threatened by the likes of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, which provide the same service for free. In May, its stock price lost 49% of its value in minutes when, despite strong first-quarter earnings, the company said its business was threatened by a “significant spike” of interest in generative A.I. from the students who make up its customer base. During the same interview Rosensweig referred to himself as the “poster child for getting your ass kicked by A.I.”
Rosensweig was attending Brainstorm Tech in part to announce the company’s foray into generative A.I. with virtual study assistant Cheggmate.
“We will be able to know exactly what you’re learning on Tuesday of next week, and bring it to you in the format that you learn best in the language that you learn best at the level that you learn best, and prove to you that you are improving,” Rosensweig said about Cheggmate.
In theory, the benefit of a tool like Cheggmate is that it’s tailored specifically for helping students with schoolwork as opposed to something like ChatGPT and Bard, which were designed with broader applications in mind. “Unlike ChatGPT, Chegg doesn’t do the work for you, it does it with you, at your level, so you can master it,” Rosensweig told Fortune in an email. “Chegg focuses on the student who wants to use education to improve their opportunities, not the ones who want shortcuts.”
But Okamoto, who is the 25-year-old founder of Period, a nonprofit working to destigmatize periods and eliminate the tampon tax, was skeptical of Rosensweig’s hopes that Cheggmate or any other A.I. tools would be used exclusively in the pursuit of knowledge. These tools, she said, ultimately create little incentive for students to actively engage with their course materials.
“A concern of mine, as a Gen Z elder, is feeling like these sorts of tools are making it easier and easier to honestly just get the answers and deprioritize engaging curiosity,” Okamoto said.
Drawing on her own experiences, Okamoto shared how during her junior year she raised a pre-seed round for her startup, causing her to lose focus on her studies. She turned to Chegg because it was “easy” and “C’s get degrees.” Okamoto did not respond to a request for comment.
Rosensweig countered that Okamoto was “thinking about it from the exact wrong way,” explaining that Chegg was created for the type of student who doesn’t have the same level of resources a student at an elite university does.
“So what the kids at Harvard did, I don’t give a shit about,” he said. “I care about the kids who are trying to make their life better.”
The students Chegg serves, Rosensweig says, are those that have historically been “unsupported by [their] school system.” They also might have a slightly more unconventional college experience, perhaps needing to work 20 to 40 hours a week to afford school; or they might have kids who pull their attention away from schoolwork.
“My view is we are built for the student that is self-initiated,” he said. “That wants to learn, and that needs to graduate with a skill.”
He went on to call academic institutions “lazy,” chastizing them for not updating their curricula and professors for not writing more thoughtful exam questions that couldn’t be answered by a ChatGPT prompt.
[This article has been updated with a comment from Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig.]