Neat Receipt Scanner - An essential tool for the cluttered student

It might be called a receipt scanner, but it's a potential lifesaver for kids with special needs or who simply struggle to stay organized.

I hate paper. Not just because it's usually made of dead trees, but also because I lose it. It ends up crumpled at the bottom of my bag, in a pile on my desk (or whatever flat surface happens to be near me), recycled, or used as fuel to crank up the fireplace on a chilly day. Plenty of people will disagree, but for my ADD-ridden brain, it's a worthless anachronism.

Two of my kids are the same way. I could open my own recycling plant with the sheer volume of paper that spews out of their backpacks, binders, and books. Another of my kids is a worse piler and pack rat than I am, struggling to find space for his laptop among piles of forgotten papers.

Sometimes these papers are actually important. This is a pretty frequent conversation in our house:

Kid #2 or 3 (it doesn't matter - the conversation is the same, although Kid #2 will tend to throw in a few more expletives): Hey, Dad, can you help me with this essay?

Me: Sure...Do you have the prompt?

Kid#2 or 3: Uhh, prompt? Errr...

Me: How about a rubric? So we know what the teacher is looking for in this paper.

Kid#2 or 3: I think I left that at school.

Me: Well, is it online?

Kid#2 or 3: No, Mrs. Dinosaurus doesn't know how to post assignments on the Internet.

Me: OK, well tell me what you remember about the essay question.

Kid#2 or 3: It was about this story we had to read. It was in a packet. But I'm not sure where the packet is.

I can't come down on them too hard since anything that isn't in my phone, on my computer, or in my Google Apps accounts simply ceases to exist. I let my wife do that since she lives by her paper planner and is the single most organized person I've ever met.

Absent a type A, Luddite wife to keep you organized, though, is there a solution for our digital native students stuck in a paper world? As a matter of fact, there is.

Portable, personal scanners are nothing new. I've seen plenty of lawyers pull them out of their laptop bags and the last mortgage I closed saw all of my signed documents turned digital, one painful page at a time on a portable scanner. However, the Neat Receipts scanner from the Neat Company is a little bit different. It's not generally marketed towards education and, as its name suggests, is meant to carried by your average road warrior to scan expense receipts, business cards, and other related documents.

Neat contacted me about a month ago and asked what I thought of the device for the education market. I had a feeling that it would be particularly useful in a few different use cases (Kids #2 and 3, for example), but I was glad to get a hold of the Mac version of the Neat Receipts scanner and put it through its paces for a few weeks.

Next: Specs, use cases, and conclusions »

The Neat Receipts scanner is available for either Mac or PC (the scanner itself will work on Linux, but the associated software won't; more on the software in a minute) and is small even by portable scanner standards. At just over 10oz and 10.8” x 1.6” x 1.3”, it fit easily into my compact messenger bag beside my laptop and power cord. It only scans at 600dpi, but that's more than adequate for text, diagrams, and moderate resolution pictures. From a hardware perspective, perhaps the best feature is that it's USB-powered, requiring no additional power supply.

At $150, it isn't cheap, but it's hardly out of reach for many schools, especially if it's used as an accommodation for students who could benefit from OCR or powerful organizational tools. It's those organizational tools, by the way, that make the Neat Receipt scanners an interesting choice in education. While the scanners are perfectly nice and competitively priced, the NeatWorks scanner software is a great digital archive that is easily adapted to education.

The software not only handles OCR of the documents from the scanner, but allows users to easily drag blocks of recognized text into searchable meta-fields for each scanned document. Thus, there is no need to type a document title, document keywords, etc., as long as they are recognized. The OCR was accurate most of the time for me, even with crumpled papers from the bottom of that infamous laptop bag.

Once scanned, all documents, scraps, notes, or whatever will fit through an 8.5" scanner goes to the NeatWorks inbox.

. According to Neat,

After processing, all scanned items are sent to the inbox, where they are automatically sorted as a receipt, business card or document. From the inbox you can quickly verify your scanned data and file it directly to the folder you choose.

Obviously, these will mostly fall into the "documents" category, but the software makes further organization easy, even if it wasn't originally designed for student needs. A couple seconds spent on tags/keywords means that the rubric for that essay is only a search away for Kids #2 and 3. The software is actually available for purchase separately if you already have a scanning solution in place.

Neat offers bulk discounts for orders over 10 units (contact their sales department for case-by-case quotes), but deployment en masse to all of your students as part of a 1:1 program, for example, is probably neither appropriate nor cost-effective. Many students manage the influx of both paper and electronic information with no problems.

However, for students who struggle in this area, who have literacy issues, or even suffer from any number of communication or motor skills problems, the scanners and associated software can be a godsend. Even for me, when I get a piece of paper, be it a business card or a shopping list, I've started scanning it and tagging it for easy retrieval.

The Neat scanners should be on every special education department's short list of valuable assistive technologies and it probably isn't a bad choice for a holiday gift for the hopelessly disorganized.