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Last Updated: Monday, 29 January 2007, 00:40 GMT
Viral e-mails taught in college
Fake sign
This picture from Neil Hepburn was last year's viral e-mail award winner

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Viral e-mails - those clever or annoying pictures or video clips that spread around offices - are going to become part of college courses.

The creative skills in designing these subversive images are to be taught to art and design students.

The initiative is from Channel 4 and a website hosting a competition to find the best viral e-mails.

Rather than an "illicit diversion" viral e-mails should be seen as legitimate art, say the organisers.

Among the winners of last year's competition - called Germ - was a picture showing a fake London street sign, pointing to destinations such "traditional muggers" and "skunk".

Other categories were won by viral adverts for computer games.

'Viral language'

The teaching initiative will work with students on art and design courses, at institutions including Kingston University, Central Saint Martin's College, Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Central England.

Star Wars Kid
"Star Wars Kid" was viewed 900 million times last year

Jo Addison, education co-ordinator for www.boreme.com, which is co-sponsor of the project, says "most students are already masters of viral language" - and that viral art is an ideal "live brief" which allows students to show their work in the "professional and public realm".

From being part of an underground approach to art, virals are now becoming an established arm of advertising - and this project anticipates that they will become part of degree courses.

Popular e-mails can reach a huge audience very rapidly - spreading among inboxes as a kind of creative spam.

Last year, a funny viral video of "Star Wars Boy", showing an over-enthusiastic youngster inspired by the movie, was viewed 900 million times.

Famous faces such as David Beckham and George Bush have been regular butts of viral e-mails.

And these jokes have become increasingly sophisticated, using video, audio and animation.

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